Monday, December 31, 2012

The year that was

As usual, I jetset like no other.  I summered in Iraq (120 degrees F) and wintered in Kazakhstan (-15 degrees C). International man of PD mystery.  Usually I write a long rehash of the year, but I am giving the condensed version this Año Nuevo.  It starts like this: with a gun to my head courtesy of the U.S. Marshals.

From there, it runs in three parts:

  • I helped free an innocent man from jail on account of gastrodiplomacy and my appreciation of Indian cheese (paneer).
  • I ran a quadralingual performing arts academy in Iraq, doing everything from kicking in bathroom doors to save trapped kiddies to stopping an international kidnapping.  And I got it on NPR.
  • I led a 5-girl bluegrass bands across Absurdistan over six long and wonderful weeks.

Everything else is just commentary.  Happy New Year!  I can only imagine what the next will bring....

El Presidente

As a taker of titles, real and imagined, I have a new one: President of Dellamanistan.  Dellmanbashi, President-for-Life.  

Ping Pong as Sport of the Gods

Zeitgeist 2012

Wow, nice work Google. Search on!

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Best slogan ever: Narragansett lager- Made on Honor. Sold on Merit.

Harvard Saturday

 A grey Saturday morning visit to Harvard’s art museums.  For once, I actually bought the adult ticket not the student variety.  For once, I felt like I could afford it and could opt out of the discount.  Once inside, I almost cursed my decision.  The first floor was modern art, the likes of which I don’t generally warm to.

But it evened out with a terrific Asian and Islamic art collection.  The fourth floor had a series of Romantic, Impressionist and other such variety that I love.  There was an excellent Homer, “Pitching Quoits” of Duryee’s Zouaves.  It’s fun just to write, and even better to see.

And there was a phenomenal (Ipad) by Steve Lambert.  A New York Times worthy of reading and weeping.  Very, very well done.

So in the end, worthy of price of admission.

I continued my wander around Hahvad, stopping at Felipe’s Taqueria off Kennendy St.  A grilled veggie burrito of chopped chargrilled zucchini, cebollas, broccoli and peppers, slathered with sour cream and a variety of pica salsas.  Little tiny cups of little tiny marinated zanahoritas and slivered cebollas that were like slivered entrails.  Washed down with a Mexican coke.  Delicious, and worth every peso- which was barato to begin with.

An afternoon flight at the John Harvard brew house.  A small taste of all their brews, ranging from a hoppy Czech pilsner to a 3 Rose Imperial red ale to an oatmeal stout.  I asked for some water to cleanse the palate, and the bartender suggested a bloody mary instead.  A bloooodi mari, how tempting.  I replied that vodka would do the trick much better.  But in the end, simply a flight.  The winner for the pint competition was a brown bear ale that was the perfect mix of full bodied yet smooth.

Amid some facebook banter, I found out that Gore Vidal had a full series of "Empire" beyond Lincoln, so I found a subterranean used book store called The Raven, and picked up a copy of 1876 to read up on the greatest presidential theft this side of hanging chads.

In the winter wonderland that is Cambridge, a big fat black maduro kept me warm in the fresh snow fall on the walk back from Harvard to Porter Square. Tom Robbins famously said that weather should either be celebrated or ignored; it has taken me a while, but perhaps I have finally learned to do both.

Different guns, different uniforms, but it's the same war

Years ago, I found Olga Belagova after she wrote about me and gastrodiplomacy.  Now I get to return the favor.  Excellent article by Olga about Russia and memories of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Cry, India

“Shut all your temples where you pretend to worship the female form. Cry India! Your hands are drenched with the blood of your own daughters.”
 - Mahesh Bhatt

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Avenue of Mausoleums

On the 2nd Ammendment

‎"Democratic theorists tend to see open, rational public deliberation as a key element of a successful democratic order: it helps citizens make honest and informed choices about which policies and politicians are worth supporting, about which values they want to shape the system that’s supposed to represent them.

The move to cast every gun regulation as a threat to the Second Amendment is opposed to that democratic debate. It’s a stalking horse for the specter of tyranny, a fantastical conversation-ender rather than a point of view worth taking seriously."

- Zack Beauchamp, "Re-thinking the Right to Bear Arms" in The American Conservative

Nec Plus Ultra

The next day was grey and morose, but as I had the aforementioned breakfast of Tajik champions.  It equally became lunch and dinner too, as whenever I would bump into the fellow, who owned the music instrument museum, where they were practicing, he would give me a similar dose.  I met the Dellas over for lunch back at the Qurotob place that they loved.  I am a huge fan of the dish (shredded fried bread, covered in yogurt sauce with slivers of tomatoes, onions, mint, dill and flaxseed oil), this was the first Central Asian delicacy that we would eat over and over.

The concert, the last one of the tour, took place that night and was a hit.  The Dellas played a great last show.  They called me up for an acknowledgement.  I was taking pictures below the stage, so I hopped up and sat on the stage to wave to the crowd for a lovely toast.

After the concert, we went out for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, complete with a belly dancer.  I love humus, it is such a comfort food.  

The following day, the Dellas visited a "boarding school," which was the euphemism used for what was essentially an orphanage.  The school hosted those with no parents, or whose parents couldn't support them. The Dellas first met with a class of Access Microscholarship students, those pupils whose potential garners them access to English educational support via the embassy.  When the kiddies were asking questions, one kid asked how old the ladies were.  When one of the Dellas responded, "how old do you think?" The kid replied: 45.  I gave him a chocolate.

There was a cute interchange of the Dellas teaching the kiddies "The more we come together, the happier we'll be."  Zee more vee come tegezer, zee happier vill beee. One audacious student decided he wanted to sing the song on his own.  "And my friends are my friends, and your friends are my friends."

There was also supposed to be a small acoustic concert for the school.  That turned into a huge gym show with no acoustics.  The Dellas handled it by coming up close and performing in the middle of the kiddies.  It worked out in the end.

After, we headed over for lunch and had what we decided was the best plov in Central Asia.  That is a big deal in the region, because the crown is strongly contested (A Game of Plov).  Apparently, the best plov is had outdoors, so we were put in an airy cold room, with a hot sheet of raw coals placed under the table to keep us warm.  We dined first on a bevy of salads, pomegranate seeds and kefir.  There was one particular farm kefir yogurt that was thick, sour and tasty.  Meanwhile, this particular plov had a bit less grease (as requested) although added fat chunks to make up for the lack.  It came complete with beef chunks, quail eggs and slivered carrots.  It was a bit lighter than others but still had all the fun fillings.  

There was one last meeting with Access Microscholarship students in the afternoon.  I was so exhausted, I went into an empty classroom, huddled against the wall and took a nap.  The principal came in, and to her surprise found me resting.  I motioned like I had a headache, and she let me be.

The last day of official programming, we woke up early and headed out to Kulyab in the south.  We left at 8am for a drive through the mountain passes.  It was beautiful, covered in a light dusting of snow.  We stopped at one particular pass to take in the dammed lakes below.  It reminded me of Kurdistan.  We drove some 4 hours to Kulyab.  The region in Kulyab is where most of the government employees come from.

We stopped for some pickle-barley soup outside town that was quite tasty.  We also had plates of roasted baby goat (circumcised castrated for extra flavor).  

With a little time to kill, we walked through a mausoleum to a Muslim saint.  The Dellas were not allowed in, so I ventured in on my own.  The tour guide was trying to explain things haphazardly in Russian to no avail.  At one point, I said mashallah, and we realized that we could communicate in Arabic.  The guide gave me the tour all over again, this time explaining everything in Arabic and I understood.  We smiled deep, and chatted a bit about religion.  As usual, he was shocked that a non-Muslim (yehudi) spoke the Quranic tongue.

We headed over to host a program at the American Corner in Kulyab at the Technological University of Tajikistan.  At the American  Corner, we found all the fun books and games, and had a quick battle in scattergories.  The American Corner staff loved that we were playing their games, and took lots of pictures.  Then the Dellas had a small (and somewhat awkward) concert at the new performance hall.  The students enjoyed the concert, but there was no structure and no queues of how the program should run.  The Dellas performed, then there were some local performances.  During the performances, one joker asked Kimber to use her violin as if he could play.  Then he got up on stage and it was apparent he had no idea what he was doing, and proceeded to play air fiddle for the crowd.  Then the students tried to get the Dellas dancing.  Ever the cultural diplomat, I joined in the airplane dance.  Since they were trying to get my girls to dance, I tried to beckon some Tajik girls to dance with me.  Their eyes widened.  

Then we met someone from the university who spoke of marrying the Dellas to Tajikistan.  Lovely idea, but then he returned with rings for all of them that had been fashioned the day prior by some students in the jewelry department.  Haha!

On our way out of town, we stopped at an old fort that had once been the capital to a Khanate in the region.  We got a tour through the ruins amid excavation work taking place.  It was interesting, but bitterly cold.

The ride back was harrowing.  The fog through the mountain passes made it like driving through a sea of milk.  Meanwhile, the slush and snow made it quite scary.  Thankfully, the driver could feel the road, as he said.  Along the way, we bumped into a camel convoy.  It was a few trucks transporting camels back to some village that had won them.

Once we got out of the mountains, things evened out.  The driver laughed at our worries, and said it was nothing.  We grabbed some Uighur food for dinner, which included various style of langman (noodles), fried and in soup.   

Thus ended the last official day.  

Just one more entry to go about the last, last day at the orphanage, and the ride home.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Dellas in Action

In Kara Balta

House of Mirthless

Absurdistan on the Charles: I walked into a bar and asked if they had happy hour specials.

The bartender looked at me cross-eyed.

You ain't from around here, she said.

Apparently, happy hour has been banned in Boston since the 1980s.  My bottom lip curled up.  Sad.

I walked out.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rabbi Rockower's recipe for a proper Jewish Xmas

A movie and a Chinese massage.  A Rabbi Rockower take on a Jewish tradition.

Migas for starters.  Homemade Mexican egg hash.  Cut up and fry tortillas squares.  Add onions, a clove of garlic.  Three button mushrooms.  A handful of spinach.  Some leftover pinto bean stew.  Salsa.  Two eggs, cracked over.  Some nicely toasted toast.

The Hobbit.  3D.  IMax.  Epic.  There, and not quite back again.  An excellent start to a classic adventure.   One that I thoroughly enjoyed.

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;'
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town, 
And beats high mountain down.

Time I will give.  It was epic.

This was one I didn't remember:

Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then they stand still.


I wandered my way to Chinatown for a Vietnamese banh mi (sandwich) for lunch.  It was a place I found a decade ago, and was still just as good.  In a crusty french loaf, julienned carrots, shallots, chili peppers, mint and tofu, slathered in sriracha.  The world would be a better place if there was more honor tofu.  I washed it down with a strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee with a lil condensed milk.

I wandered my way to Chinatown to find a foot massage.  What I found was even better.  I had a back and head massage.  It was epic.

Chinese ladies like to tell me I am beautiful.  They love my eyelashes.  And they giggle at my pidgin mandarin.

The lithe little one used her elbows and forearms across my back.  She kneaded my back horizontally with a little diagonal with her forearm.

With a shampoo massage and face wash.  A proper brainwashing.  Probably the best washing i have had since I was in a plastic bath tub.  

This was a proper scrub.  Lather, rinse and repeat.  With a soapy neck scrub.  Wo de dee- oh ma gawd as they say in Beantown.

Now I am headed back for a double feature.  Skyfall.  First a Maker's that is making its mark.  Some traditional Chinese to follow.


Well, now I am all confused of what to update. I have shared a bit of Tajikistan, I guess I will just run with it. Just trying to bring the Absurdistan adventure to a close...

Tajikistan proved to be surprisingly lovely. First, the embassy put us up in an apartment-hotel, so we actually had kitchens, laundry and a bit of hominess. The CAO Sandy and Cultural Affairs Asst Mahmud were terrific. They made a great team, and were really fun and engaging. They were understanding of our exhaustion, and scheduled accordingly and appropriately.

After our rest day, the Dellas had a morning performance at Radio Vatan. The station was in an old Soviet bloc style building, and was utterly depressing. It also had the scariest elevator I have ever been in. At one point, four of us got in an elevator that already had two guys in. With their eyes, they counted all the people and promptly got out- as if the elevator might not make it with all of us. It might not have. Ironically, Kimber's family worked in the elevator construction business, so she took pics to show the folks at home. While we were at the station, and waiting for the interview, I stumbled upon the find of the trip. On a glass door for a fire extinguisher was a sticker for:

I carefully peeled it off, and redeposited it on the guitar case of one Courtney Hartman.  I win.

After a fun performance in a cramped radio booth and a little singing into a can, we fearfully took the elevators back down.  It was terrifying.  We stopped for some Turkish food for lunch, and I introduced the Dellas to the deliciousness of pistachio baklava.

The day was bright and beautiful, and we scarcely even needed a coat.  The sun burnt brightly on the Tien Shan mountains in the distance, and they sparkled in the snow.  The Dellas had a small concert and informal discussion with about 100 youth at the American Corner located at the national library.  Again, I was impressed with the American Corner, with its vivid pictures of American life and fun accouterments of the American dvds of Twilight.  The concert and discussion went well, and the students enjoyed both the music and the opportunity to interact with the Dellas.  

Interestingly, at one point two Tajik teens came up to me and started speaking Tajik to me.  I didn't respond, so they kept talking.  When I finally gulped and said I didn't understand, they looked at me in a puzzled fashion.  "Wait, you aren't Tajik?," they asked.  Haha, no but I smiled and gave thanks for the compliment.  Ever ethnically ambiguous. 

Later that night, we had a jam session with local musicians at a museum of musical instruments.  The museum was amazing, it had all sorts of dutars, sitars, rabaps and other Central Asian and various instruments on display.  To shake off the initial awkwardness, Sandy the CAO and I made a run to the convenience store and came back with a few bottles of wheat grass vodka and snacks.  The libations helped soothe the cultural exchange into a real jam session, and it turned into an amazing session.  There were tunes bouncing off the small room of Tajik, bluegrass and other kinds of music.  Courtney picked up a dutar, and was amazingly adept at playing the instrument.  The coolest was a blues song that Celia belted out ("Steamroller"), with all the musicians following along including a harmonica ("lip harm!").  I will have to post that soon, it was pretty amazing.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Gastrodiplomacy at its Finest!

Apparently the traditional way in Japan of proposing marriage is to ask: can I drink your miso soup? Arrigato, Mark Hosang!

American Gastrodiplomacy fail!

For 6 weeks in Absurdistan, I didn't get sick ONCE. Now, back in the good ol US of A, my tummy can't handle these first world parasites and amoebas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

On escape

"Forget about what you are escaping from.  Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to."
-The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay


I fell woefully far behind on the blog, and this is my attempt at catching up…

Back in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the Dellas had the big performance at the lavish yellow Opera House.  The performance was the culmination of events celebrating 20 years of US-Kyrgyz friendship. 

I wheeled the large bass over to the hall that was just up the street from our hotel.  Hanging from the front columns in the giant portico was a 20 ft banner of Della Mae for the evening’s concert.  We were supposed to come through the back door, but I didn’t want to wheel the bass through the snow so I stopped at the front, thinking that they could let me in.  I thought wrong, and waited a good 20 minutes out front as the theater staff looked to find a key to open the front door. 

Once inside, the ornate performance hall mesmerized me.  The marble entryway with pastel yellow walls led into a phenomenally ornate hall with a light blue fresco dome featuring paintings of Kyrgyz folk life.  The crushed red velvet seats fit nicely in the bronzed hall, and the stage was covered in beautiful Kyrgyz felt carpets as decorations.

The day was spent with the Dellas practicing with their Kyrgyz folk troupe doppelgangers Ustatshakirt.  Meanwhile, the hallways were filled with the sound of practicing opera singers from another dressing room, something that reminded me of my LA home.  There were some soundcheck issues that was getting parties a little skittish, so I ran back to the hotel for espresso and vodka.  Given that there was no such things as “to go” for the espresso, I had the barista fill up a water bottle with the gummi berry juice, and I filled up another empty water bottle with artisanal water.  Both proved to be remedies for what ailed.

The soundchecks and warm-ups finished, and we hung out in the greenroom, eating dried fruits and nuts.  I went out for an Indian food run for dinner at a place we had frequented a day or two prior and had really liked.  I racked up a big enough bill for malai kofta, palak paneer and gulab jamun that the place offered to deliver. 

We had a green room full of food and drinks (artisanal water, Kyrgyz brandy) but no cups or utensils, so I raided the snack bar in true Pablo fashion.  I walked up to the snack bar and started taking the glasses.  The girl behind the counter protested, saying that I couldn’t do that.  “Yes, I can,” I said as I smiled and started to walk away.  “You can’t, but I will give you plastic cups,” she replied.  Throw in some plastic plates, and you have a deal.  I had to work much harder for metal spoons, promising I would return them- washed- in thirty minutes.  In the end, the dish ran away with the spoon.

The concert was a huge hit.  The US Ambassador spoke briefly to begin, then the Dellas put on an excellent show.  The real highlight from the program was the collaboration with Ustatshakirt.  The audience went absolutely nuts with the joint performances.  They loved the Dellas playing Kyrgyz music, and the Kyrgyz folk troupe playing bluegrass.  I am posting the videos again, because I think they are tremendously fine examples of what cultural diplomacy is all about.  The “Aged Pine” video is especially poignant, as it was written by Celia as her father was battling cancer, a fight he ultimately lost just about 2 years ago prior.  Before the show, Celia had told our Embassy partner Kamila, who had just lost her mother and had just ended the period of mourning the day prior, that she was playing the song in honor of her mother as well.

The next day was a rest day, one that was much needed.  I woke up early, and headed to the department store Tsum for a little shopping.  This proved a bit frustrating.  There was an antique kiosk with a pocket watch that I really liked.  It was a silver watch that said “Kyrgyzstan” in Cyrillic, with a bird on the front.  I started negotiating with the woman who ran the store through another intermediary who spoke English.  The initial price tag said it was $125 or so, but the woman dropped the price to about $100.  I started at $50 and was working my way up.  I spoke to the quality of the watch, which I could see, but also that it was a bit worn.  I was pushing a bit more for a better price, and I thought we were close.  She was down to $90 and I was up to $75, and probably would have agreed to $85.  Then the woman said something that floored me.  She then rudely said, “in my culture, men don’t negotiate with women.”  Right, I should just take the price you ask, when everyone else bargains?  I blithely apologized for culturally offending her, and promptly left.  In Kyrgyz culture, men don’t negotiate with women… they steal them, so spare me the merchant’s false offense.

The day limped on in a similar fashion.  The Dellas went out shopping at a Christmas market, and I worked up in the café, staring out at the Tien Shan mountains that were blocked by fog.  That night, we all got together for dinner at the Indian restaurant again to celebrate Jenni Lyn’s birthday on the following day (which I previously wrote about In the Dush). There was a gift exchange, as this would be the last time we were all together.  The Dellas gave me a lovely handmade scarf that they had bought me as a gift for my hard work on behalf of their tour.  The rest of the night was spent trying to stay awake ahead of the trip to the airport for Jenni Lyn’s flight out.

Sans Jenni Lyn, we made our way the next day out of Bishkek to the last stop Dushanbe.  We ran into a little snag as we were leaving the hotel.  Jenni had left a few things for the rest of the Dellas to pick up from her room, and they had told the front desk not to clean up the room.  But the message was never relayed, and everything left was moved out, including a microphone.  The Dellas explained this to the front desk, and even went looking for the stuff in the cleaning room.  They found everything but the microphone.  Frustrating.

Why indeed

"Did you know you can take a flight on Southwest for $50 one way?" my Mom asked. 

"No thanks," I replied.

"But it is only an hour flight, and probably is about the same as you paid for the buses," she said.

"Yes, but I would still rather take the bus," I replied.

"Why?," she asked puzzledly.

Why indeed.  From a rational, linear standpoint, which my parents often hold, it would make no sense to opt for an 8 hour bus trip over a 1 hour flight, especially if the costs are about the same.

So I will offer the reasons of why I did, and feel I made the right decision:

-I have taken roughly 15 flights in the last 6 weeks, and flying the friendly skies of Absurdistan makes you weary.  Contrary to what the airlines tell you, real miles are earned far lower to the ground.

-The chance to have a slice of possibly the finest New York pizza at Pizza Suprema, which a fellow named Colin Hagendorf considered the best in Manhattan.  Colin tried a slice of cheese in every pizza place in New York, and only Pizza Suprema received a perfect rating.  As one who has tried a semi-similar quest to find the stinkiest of the stink tofu in Taipei, I can respect the hunt for quality.

I can't say I disagree with Colin's call.  The crust was perfectly crispy and firm yet  not overly so.  The sauce had a tangy sweetness.  The cheese was ooey-gooey and it came at the perfect temperature as to threaten pizza burn but leave the roof unscathed.

-To see the demonstration outside Macy's against fur, with disgusting pictures and strange looking dolls of shorn marmots.

-For the utter joy of riding the New York subway, which is always a show.  6-year old Chinese piano prodigies playing Beethoven.  A fetid homeless fellow chatting away with himself.  I watched a Subway sanitation worker slip the self-talker a few bucks.  She wished him a Merry Christmas, and I was reminded of what we all live by.

-For the frenetic pace of Chinatown, and a reminder of why I miss the East.

-For the pure, unadulterated joy of 8 hours of reading, writing and swimming through my own head while staring out the flat screen that is life seen through the bus window.

City Upon a Hill

Off to Beantown. I left that city some 10 years ago, in post-graduation flight from Brandeis down to Texas. Gonna occupy Bostonia for the next month or so. Dunkin' Donuts coffee, here I come!

Welcoming the strangers in our midst

This story gave me chills, and hope for America's future: Immigrants Welcomed- A City Sees Economic Promise.


Just finished with yoga, and the teacher was leading us through a meditation session. As my mind started slipping into the deep subconscious, some dude ripped a fart. Way to break my concentration, bro- as I fought to keep from giggling. Om....

Friday, December 21, 2012

Aged Pine

I am starting to find that a day without Dellas is like a day without sun.  Grey DC weather.  So it goes.  Something so soulful and wonderful to brighten the day:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Brookstone Diplomacy

AV scholarship student Alan Rasheed gets his American cultural lesson of the day at Brookstone.


Cluck cluck...

Della Mae's status update:
After 44-52 hours of travel each, WE'RE HOME!!!! What an absolutely illuminating trip. In these restful hours we can begin to process and prepare for what it will take to share our stories, songs, heartbreaks and enlightenment. Thank you to our families for their patience and trust, to the Embassy employees who worked their butts off to make our programs happen, to American Music Abroad 2012-2013 for giving us this amazing opportunity, to Paul Rockower for being our fearless leader and Mother Hen, and most especially we thank our new fans and friends in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan for sharing your stories with us. We will never forget this trip, and the impact that is has had upon our hearts will guide us through the rest of our lives. Happy Holidays, and remember there is no better time to tell someone you love then than RIGHT NOW! We love you ♥ DM

Best Wishes from American Voices!

If you consider it worthwhile to support the performing arts in countries emerging from conflict, please consider donating to American Voices this holiday season. Your donations help support AV performing arts academies this coming year in such fun places as Iraq and Sudan.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ideologies Of My Past

Cultural Diplomacy at its finest

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give."

The words said by one British bulldog Winston Churchill never seemed so apt.

Over the last 6 weeks, across South and Central Asia, Della Mae gave a lifetime's worth of love, compassion and bluegrass.

Across the 'Stans, the Dellas played, performed and taught about that uniquely American art form that is bluegrass. Along the way, they touched the lives of so many, be it at music schools, lavish performance halls or orphanages and refugee centers.

The Dellas had the longest American Musica Abroad tour, to the most countries, and they handled it with true grace and aplomb. A heartfelt welcome home to the cultural diplomatesses of Della Mae. Welcome home, Della Mae! Welcome home.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I bade the last of the Dellas goodbye...and ripped a fart I had been holding in for 6 weeks.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On going home cont.

A fav I have posted before from the phenomenal book "Lord Jim" by Joseph Conrad:

"And then, I repeat, I was going home- to the home distant enough for all its hearthstones to be like one hearthstone, by which the humblest of us has the right to sit. We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account.

We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those who we love; but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields in its water and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear conscience.

All this may seem shear sentimentalism; and indeed very few of us have the will or capacity to look consciously under the surface of familiar emotions. There are the girls we love, the men we look up to, the tenderness, the friendship, the opportunities, the pleasures! But the fact remain that must touch your reward with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns, in your grasp. I think it is lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal and unchanging spirit- it is those who understand best its severity, its saving power, the grace of its secular right to our fidelity, to our obedience.

Yes! few of us understand, but we all feel it through, and I say all without exception, because those who do not feel do not count. Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life."

or not

Bah, a stirring reminder about the ephemeral word "inshallah" found in two rather unfortunate words: flight delayed.

The first news I heard about it was "flight cancelled" from a German fellow in the hall at 4am as we were making our way down. I deadpanned "f-ck you" to the poor bearer of bad news.

On home

No more 'Stans. Just many miles to go before I sleep.

On Adventure

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do then by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
- Mark Twain

TY Nora.

Why we do what we do

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give."
-Winston Churchill

Moving words from Della Mae's Kimber Ludiker, and a stirring reminder of why we do what we do:

For the last 6 weeks I've been a part of cultural diplomacy in action. My band Della Mae has partnered with the US State Department and American Voices in a program called American Music Abroad. Over 6 weeks I've fallen completely in love with the people, music, and cultures of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It's given me a whole new respect for the Foreign Services (there are fewer people in the Foreign Services than the Army's marching band- and officers in Pakistan can't bring their families).
Cultural Diplomacy is a really incredible thing, and it works. Bridging gaps in this world is so important. It's been a life changing and humbling experience to be in South and Central Asia. We need to know how other people live, and how our lives effect one another. I will be dedicating my life to seeking out and spreading this knowledge. This trip will definitely change the way Della Mae approaches our touring as well, especially in the United States. Here's to the New Year, and to a resolution that hopefully is simple enough for everyone: Expanding our hearts.

As I process my experiences, I'll share more, but right now it's a little overwhelming!

Love from Dushanbe, Tajikistan as I begin my 30 hour journey back to the States... and another trip the next day to my new home in Nashville, TN.

Mama hen might cluck a few tears from that. 

Oh, Absurdistan...

Absurdistan always wins in the end.

Kara Balta; Lenin Museum

Tracing back to Bishkek.  The problem with trying to recount things is that it loses the fun details that get washed over, and ends up being a cursory recounting...

We had a program outside the city, about an hour or so away in a place called Kara Balta. Kara Balta used to be the main uranium refining center for the Soviet Union.  The center of the city, which looked starkly different- in newer pastels and designs- from the surrounding areas, had formerly been off-limits

The performance at the school was a lot of fun, the kids loved it and stuck around for a while taking pictures with the Dellas. 

We headed back into town to meet Kamila the cultural affairs assistant.  Kamila’s mother had passed away 40 days prior and she was ending the period of mourning that day.  We had bought her some flowers, and she was really touched.  She had us over at her sister’s restaurant (called Fatboy’s!) for some traditional plov as a gesture of thanks. 

After the late lunch, we headed back to the music school for the Dellas to continue their rehearsals with the folk group Ustat Shakirt.

That night, we sat around the restaurant bar, playing Apples to Apples, always a fav.  Big thanks to the American Corner for lending us that.

Saturday was the day of the concert.  I had much of the morning free so I headed over to the Kyrgyz National Museum—formerly the Lenin Museum   Fascinating!  Giant bronze statues and busts of Lenin.  Lenin in St. Petersburg in that famous scene; Lenin leading the people.  And there were all sorts of murals and other bronze busts of “the people” and also Marx and Engels.  Interspersed in all of this Leninalia was displays on Kyrgyz history and culture.  It was just a tad discordant, but interesting for such.  And out back was a giant statue of Lenin that used to grace the main square but has been relegated to the backyard.  There were pigeons sitting on his head and his pointing finger, I had to giggle a bit.

I spent the rest of the day, hanging out at the restaurant at the top of our hotel.  The Holiday Hotel has a restaurant/cafe/bar on the 8th floor (top) that has the most spectacular view of the Tien Shan Mountain range just beyond the city.  The majestic snow covered mountain made such a phenomenal backdrop for breakfasts and afternoon coffees, it definitely ranked up among best views for a hotel restaurant.

Selling Alaska

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Guns, Facts & America

"When we first collected much of this data, it was after the Aurora, Colo. shootings, and the air was thick with calls to avoid “politicizing” the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for “don’t talk about reforming our gun control laws.”

Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome, that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws."
-Ezra Klein.

Facts on guns and America.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bowling Green

Precisely why I do what I do- cultural diplomacy at its finest:


Breakfast of Champions, Tajik-style

On a  grey, remorseless day, I was growing frustrated at herding cats.  But a friendly old Russian-Tajik man sat me down for glasses of vodka with pureed tomato and pickle chunks to cure what ails me.

If a civil war falls in Central Asia...

And no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  In Tajikistan, there was a civil war post-Soviet break up that raged through the 1990s.  My friend Mahmud said that it was the old Communist Left pitted against the Democrats and (soft) Islamists, who were fighting together.  That is one version of many.  Russia was backing the old Communist Left to maintain its sphere of influence in the region; the mujahadeen were involved in their own right.  Over 150,000 people were killed in the bloody affair.  Those are the government estimates, which mean that is was far more.  And I knew nothing of it.  This all went down as the West focused on the wars in the former Yugoslavia.  This all reminds me that "never again" is a hollow term, devoid of meaning and perspective.

On Islam & Central Asia

"We are Muslims, but...we are Russian Muslims. Let's have another shot."

Navdrovie to nuance.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Determining Justice

The Onion is up to its usual brilliance with this commentary by Justice Clarence Thomas on why he gets to decide on gay marriage:

In the Dush

I am behind a bit on the updates, so I will update at present and work backwards to Krygyzstan.

We left Bishkek for the Manas airport around noon.  This was my second trip to Manas, as I had been the night before to send off the Dellas' mandolinasta Jenni Lyn.  Jenni was on her way home early (scheduled) to be with her sister for the birth of her first niece.  Jenni was up for the longest birthday of her life, beginning with a flight at 4:45am to Istanbul.  Not being the best of travelers, I had hoped to facilitate the process, but flying the friendly skies in Absurdistan is never easy.  The security wouldn't even let me and our embassy friend to the ticket counter to escort her.  Yes, there was security that blocked us even before the check-in gate.  We tried to talk our way in but to no avail.  We had a cell phone for Jenni to keep us posted on her progress, which we had planned to have her give to security once in- a usual courtesy to the embassy but even that was refused.  Our embassy friend got a random Kyrgyz woman to call with updates to let us know she got through without problems.  Once we got the ok, we headed back and I got home and asleep around 4am.

I woke up the next morning, packed up my stuff and we headed on to Manas airport.  With the usual a-stan confusion, we made our way to the gate after random delay.  We had to pay $18 for overweight charges.  I gave the woman at the counter a $20, and it became an affair to get change.  I tried to tell her to keep the change, and that I would simply take the fake roses or the Manas Airport flag, but apparently change is change.  We finally got through customs and on to wait at the tiny gate.  On the tarmac were scores of grey US airforce transport planes, as Manas is a transit center.

We climbed on Tajik Air's finest, a little puddlejumper, which was akin to Southwest with no assigned seats, and akin to Absurdistan with no order.  That tiny puddlejumper climbed up into the friendly skies and over the majestic snow-covered mountains.  Probably the most beautiful flight I have had since flying into Tibet.  On the flight, they served us cold roasted chicken and warm tea.

Our little minnow landed and we entered the chaos of the Dushanbe airport.  Lines convulsed at the passport desk, but thankfully we had an expediter to expedite our arrival.  But with one problem, the Foreign Ministry official was out to lunch.  After watching the shoving matches at the passport desk for about 30 min, eventually the fellow came back.  He shepherded us into his office, and required passport photos we were told we didn't need.  After a little wrangling, he agreed to issue our visas.  He sat under a picture of the prez, which he bore a striking resemblance  through eyebrows and hair-parts, and printed out and stuck on our visas.

In a glorious bit of confusion, the expediter led us around the passport desk, which then had the border guards chasing after us in a huff, and we went to get our bags.  Once we found our stuff, we found a rugby scrum of chaos of fellow passengers trying to shove their way out.  Three flights had arrived at once and scrum was big enough that the expediter thought it best that we wait.  I took one look at the scrum, with bags being held overhead, and agreed.  We spent another 30 minutes, waiting and watching with an anthro delight.  We ate peanut butter covered in cholula hot sauce with bits of dark chocolate toblerone bar.

When we saw another flight arrive, we decided it was best to try to push through the line rather than wait even longer.  We formed a wedge to try to get into the line to get out.  Thankfully, when an older gentleman saw a score of American girls, he pushed back on some of the shabab to let the Dellas through.  We got ourselves out of the customs line and into Tajikistan for the last stop on the tour.

So here we are in Dushanbe.  The City of Monday.  Formerly known as Stalinabad ("The City of Stalin").  I will take a city of manic mondays over Stalin's city any day.

Tajikistan feels like a return to Central Asia.  Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were far more Asiatic in mien, but the Tajiks have a Euro-Asiatic countenance.  Back to the bushy eyebrows, ruddy faces and colorful gold-teeth smiles under colorful head scarves.  Tajikistan is a bit of an outlier, as the people speak farsi here.  And thankfully, Tajikistan reversed its Facebook ban just days before our arrival ("like").

We went out to dinner with our embassy hosts.  The most interesting thing from dinner was the Tajik lemon tea, which was sweet and tart.  It had a half a special Tajik lemon squeezed into the pot, and was wonderful.

We had a rest day today, and I wandered around the city a bit, past tree-lined parks and a statue of a king crowned in gilded resplendence.  The embassy section invited us out for lunch, and we had the national dish of Tajikistan: qurotob.  Qurotob is a flaky bread that has been shredded then covered with a thin yogurt sauce, tomato and onion slices then topped with dill and flaxseed oil (linseed oil said one fellow, and I told him that linseed was usually for polishing furniture and softening baseball gloves, so probably not). It was served in a giant wooden bowl for sharing, and it was delicious.  Surprisingly light and very yummy.

After lunch, we visited a textile center for Afghan refugees in Dushanbe called Loomis, that helped give work to Afghan refugees residing here.  The Dellas hung with the ladies, and bought a number of handicrafts.

We returned back, and after a nap I went out wandering.  After a little Turkish food, I met two Iranians students living here who had been forced to flee first Iran then Afghanistan.  We chatted for a bit, and I took them out for beers.  We chatted about best asylum places, and life in America.  They both really wanted to go to America.  I told them that I wished it was so easy, but at least America could buy them a beer.

The Last Action Hero

The elevator door opened and out walked guys carrying AK47s in black leather coats. My eyes widened. Then out walked guys behind them carrying video cameras and lights. I guess Dushanbe is the Hollywood of Absurdistan.

If it's got to be clean, it's got to be....

Sadly, the grocery store was out of Barf detergent, so I had to get a box of Muff to wash my clothes.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Good Morning Kyrgyzstan!

We had an early morning for the Dellas to be on an early morning tv show, "Good Morning!"  The girls gals had a fun interplay with the hosts.  At one point, the male host mentioned that since the Dellas were all girls of the feminine variety, and they were going to be collaborating with a 5-girl fenaleKyrgyz folk troupe (and that US Ambassador was female), it seemed that the US-Kyrgyz relationship was in the hands of women.  The female host quickly retorted that it sounded like it was in good hands then.  Everyone had a bit of a chuckle.

We dropped off some laundry and had a little break before heading over to the Bishkek College of Music, to do a class at the American Music Center.  The place was cool, it had all sorts of old American pics of musicians and cds of jazz legends and other American music.

After the girls venusites did a bit of felt shopping, for which Kyrgyz is famous, before we headed over to the American Corner in Bishkek.  I am becoming a huge fan of the American Corners, and I am going to write more about it in depth later.  This one was in the Bishkek library, and was huge.  There were pics on the wall of various American cities and scenes of life.  There were all sorts of book, as well as VHS and DVD movies, audio books, Toefl/GMAT/SAT study guides.  There were even board games, and they let us borrow Apples to Apples!  The Amercan Corner hosts talking clubs, various speaker programs.  The Dellas introduced themselves and where they were from, and had a freewheeling session of music and Q&A about life in America and their music.  I really like the way that the American Corners create space for cultural exchange.

We had another early morning the next morning, for a tv show on Zamana, which was on Kyrgyz National TV.  It was a lil chaotic, to the point that a microphone lady was still on the set when the segment started, and she had to sneak off while the camera was pointed at the host.  But the interview went well, and the Dellas had a good rapport with the host.

After, they had a radio interview on the national Kyrgyz radio, where they played a few songs and talked about bluegrass and their crazy trip.  They also got to do some recordings in the radio center's phenomenal sound studio.  They recorded some for the radio, then did some of their own songs for vid.

We had a it of a free afternoon, I think we went shopping at the giant department store called Tsum, where I got some silks for gifts and a silver chain for my magen david that I had been missing for a while.

They had one last performance at the Maevka House of Culture, a lil out of town.  The show was a lot of fun, much because the PAO Christian helped get all the attendees up and dancing.  'Twas a lot of fun.


After too many flights over the last two weeks to count, we finally got to drive to another country. We packed up an embassy van and headed out of snowy Almaty with the Tien Shan mountain range. We drove through the slushy traffic until we reached the empty frozen tundra. There was a serene whiteness to the surroundings. On one side just empty whiteness, with a smattering and scattering of shaggy sheep and wild horses; on the other, the majestic Tien Shan mountain range.

After about 2 hours, we stopped at a rest stop and switched into a van for the US Embassy to Kyrgyzstan, then we continued our drive on to Bishkek. We crossed the border with no issues, and made our way into the Kyrgyz capital. We had a traditional Kyrgyz lunch with our Embassy staff. I had a phenomenal Kyrgyz lamb kabob with grilled eggplant and shredded onions wrapped in lavash (thin pita). We checked in, and I had an aforementioned St. Louis-shwarma evening free.

The next morning, the Dellas had a program at the Krasnaya Rechka Orphanage. We drove about 40 minutes outside the city until we got to the orphanage. Apparently, US army folks stationed at the Manas Air Force base come out to the orphanage on a semi-weekly basis to play with the kids and help out with some general repairs and the like.

We set up in a room for about 40-50 kids, many of whom had down's syndrome. The Dellas played, shared music and love with the kiddies. The whole thing was wonderful and poignant. There was one adorable girl with down's syndrome who hooked her arm in mine and wouldn't let me go. After the show, the Dellas let the kids play with their instruments, which the kiddies absolutely loved. The kids didn't want them to leave.

We drove back into town, and stopped at a music boarding school. The Dellas played for the music students, who then reciprocated with some traditional dombra stomps and songs. After the music exchange, the Dellas met with their doppelgangers, a 5-girl Kyrgyz folk troupe named Ustad Shakirt, who they would be collaborating with them for their big concert at the Opera House. It was interesting, the girls all collaborated well, but there was definitely a different culture of music arrangement. The Kyrgyz folk troupe was much more managed, and waited for ques from their manager and were very hesitant to take any solos without prompting, while the Dellas are a lot more freewheeling. Cultural differences...

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Miracle of Plov

If the Maccabees had plov, the miracle oil of Hanukkah would have lasted a year.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The City of Ice and Glass

The city was covered in snow as we drove in past giant new buildings.  We drove past the bike stadium that looked like a giant helmet, and other turquoise-wrapped glass stadiums.  We checked into the palatial Rixos Hotel and settled into lavishness.  After a long day, I headed down to the spa and bumped into a few of the Dellas in the Turkish hamam.  I explained how the marble bathhouse worked and we all lounged on heated marble slabs and splashed around in the marble basins.  After the hamam, we alternated between the Finnish spa and a eucalyptus-tinged steamroom that was like swimming in a cough drop.

The following day was a rest day, and we lounged about the spa and hotel.  I had my bloooody mari fiasco to start the day, and decided I needed some fresh air as well as a very necessary camera battery charger.  It was about –10C outside, so I threw on the gloves and earmuffs, and trudged out in the cold over to the nearby mall.  The cold nipped and bit, and froze the snot a bit in my nose, but was actually not so bad.  I found the TechnoDum (TechnoHouse) and swam my way through linguistic confusion to get a new camera battery but no charger. 

After a nap, I went to visit the giant golden glass egg tower.  The tower has something to do with a Kazakh legend about a golden egg and a dragon.  The tower gave a wonderful panoramic view of the city, I had fun snapping pics and taking in the view. 

That night, we all went out ice skating.  If God wanted me on ice, he would have made me a zamboni.  But I did fine and didn’t break anything.  The Dellas were much better skaters than me, but it was all in good fun.  After the ice skating, we hopped a gypsy cab with a bullet hole in the window over to a restaurant called Fusion.  It had American food, Kazakh food and Sushi, with tons of pics of American celebs decorating the wall and terrible covers piped through the sound system.  I decided to try the horse sausages, which surprisingly good.  It tasted a bit like Moroccan mergez, and was spiced nicely.  I had heard that horse could be dry, but this was flavorful.

On Friday, we had a concert over at the Astana Hotel, which had a new performance center.  The Dellas were performing that night with a traditional Kazakh music group named Kok Tukilier.  They bonded immediately over the collaboration pieces and different instruments.  It was fun to watch these musicians with no real common language communicate so quickly.

Later, when the band was doing a final sound check before the show, the sound was acting up and giving huge feedback blasts.  As the show started, it appeared that one of the speakers had blown.  After a first song with poor song, the Dellas called out to the audience that they would need to go unplugged.  Thankfully, the room hall was shaped to be like a yert, and was amenable to an acoustic show.  They invited the audience to come a little closer and rolled with it.

As people were moving down, a cameraman with a video camera took a step backwards and backed into a stair set coming down from the stage.  He started tumbling backwards on the stairs and his camera on tripod with him over his head.  I was in striking distance, so I did a dive-cradle under his camera and caught it before it hit the ground.  He was appreciative, to say the least.

And the Della Mae Unplugged concert was terrific.  It gave a whole different feel to their show, with a bit more intimacy that the acoustic show offered.  The preparations earlier with the Kazakh musicians all became a little unhinged since the sound system was turned off, but the two ensembles rolled with it too, and it all worked out very well.

Being the wonderful cultural diplomatesses that they are, prior to leaving on tour the Dellas had requested if they could play at orphanages while on tour.  Posts were pleased to accommodate, and on Saturday morning we headed over to an orphanage in Astana.  It was one of the more poignant programs I have ever seen.  The kids were adorable, ranging in age from 8 to 16.  They were so appreciative to have Della Mae come play for them.  And the most heart-warming moment was when the Dellas taught the kids to sing “This little light of mine.”  The kids sang along perfectly, it was hard not to get a little misty.

After the show, the Dellas played with the kids, letting them strum their instruments and just have some affection.  The kids showed the Dellas their dorm rooms and their art areas. 

We then drove to the Khan Shatyr Mall, a giant wrapped turquoise glass mall that resembles a giant tent.  The mall is famous for its beach on the top floor.  Yes, it has a real beach with real sand (with a wave pool, I think) that you can visit for $40.  Its funny, in deserts of Dubai, you can play in the snow and go skiing in the mall; in the frozen steppes of Astana, you can put your feet in the sand.

The Dellas were performing at the mall.  Cultural Diplomacy, Teen Beat-style.  Actually, this was apparently quite common at the Kazakh shopping mall.  We had some time to kill, so we all wandered around the mall.  After about 30 minutes in the mall, I had enough, and decided that I would rather masochistically see how long I could stand in the sub zero temperatures without a coat than spend another minute stuck in a shopping mall.

Later that evening, the Dellas performed in the middle of the mall.  There were some continued sound problems, but the Dellas got through it.  There were probably about 350 or so people who congregated on various floors to watch the show.  Meanwhile, kids started coming onto the floor to dance.  One boy in particular was a star.  He looked to be about six or so, and would slowly and rhythmically move his arms and legs  before diving onto the floor to literally hump the floor.  It took every ounce of fiber for the Dellas not to start cracking up.  We later found out that the kid’s father was the manager of the entire mall.  I guess if your dad runs the show, you can hump the mall.

The Dellas finished their show and were joined by the Kazakh band from the night prior.  The mall erupted when they did the traditional Kazakh song “Illigay” and scores of people were singing along.  After their show, the folk group performed as well.  After the show and the requisite rock star mob of pictures, we went out with the musicians for dinner at a local Kazakh restaurant.  We had plates of local fare including plov (pilaf), langman (long, thick noodles with meat and peppers in a red broth) and other delicious dishes.  There were a table next to us of Russian-Kazakhs guys, who were next to us getting hammered.  The restaurant doubled as a club, and at some point Gangnam-style came on and we joined them dancing on the dance floor.  I think they were convinced that an angel had sent them a bevy of American girls to dance with, they were so happy.  It was a hysterical affair.  Oh, Gangnam-style and your global ubiquity.

We treated the Kazakh musicians to dinner, which they greatly appreciated, and the Russians tried to keep the girls to stick around, even going so far as playing Gangnam-style again.

The following day we flew back to Almaty for an afternoon off.  Our flight kept got delayed a bit, which bit into our free evening in Almaty.  We met my friend Adam, who had arranged for the girls to meet a traditional dombro luthier.  We hopped gypsy cabs, which was an experience in its own fashion.  A gypsy cab, if I haven’t previously explained, is just a regular car that picks you up for a ride, and you give a lil money for the ride.  It’s basically hitchhiking for a small fee.  We had to take two cabs, so I went with 2 girls, while Adam took another girl.  Adam had given the driver directions, but at some point he asked in Russian whether to go left or right.  50/50 chance, luckily I chose correctly.

We went with Adam into the music university, into the luthier shop of a master and his apprentices.  Covered in saw dust, and filled with dombros in various stages of completion, the place was amazing.  The white-haired old master welcomed us into his studio with charm.  .

Adam and he chatted for a while, and Adam translated for us about the instruments and his craft.  Adam brought out the dombro that he had bought years prior from the old master, and handed back to him his craftwork.  The old master played a number of tunes for us, his wizened fingers flying up and down the neck and across the two strings.  He played for us songs of the steppes, one in particular about two ponies running.  I closed my eyes and could hear the playful ponies frolicking across the terrain. 

Then Adam brought out his beautiful rawap, a long-necked stringed instrument with a snakes skin-covered base that he got when he lived in Kashgar in Western China.  Kashgar is home to the Turkic Uigher community that is fighting for its independence (East Turkestan) from China.  Adam played us a tune to show us the musical difference between the steppes and the desert-oasis area of Kashgar.  While one rhythmically ran across the plains, the other slowly basked in the oasis. 

While the girls played on the beautiful instruments, I watched the apprentices whittle, sand and shape the wood that would become the beautiful dombros.

After a fascinating cultural evening, we took a nice walk through the snow and grabbed some Thai food, which was a welcome curry and tofu change from everything else we had been dining on.

The Denver of Central Asia

Following the post-concert sh-tshow, the next morning was rough.  At breakfast, everyone looked a lil green.  But the show must go on, so we piled into the van and drove through Almaty.  The majestic mountains in the distance made the city look like Denver, and the glass skyline reflected the mountains.  With the Tien Shan Mountain range to our east, we drove on to the Almaty Jazz School just out of town. 

At the Almaty Jazz School, we regained our strength over some coffee and tea and we were treated to a lovely jazz performance with from the only Jazz school in Central Asia.  The school was a stirring reminder of how Jazz won the Cold War.  The kids played a slew of Jazz numbers, then the Dellas gave a masterclass on bluegrass.  The music students loved the show.  During the Q&A, an adorable little blond boy of about 7 years or so told them how beautiful they were.  I told him he could be my assistant and role with the band.  He declined.  Afterwards, the Dellas split off and gave mini-masterclasses on their respective instruments.

After lunch, we had a session at the American Corner Almaty, which was in a nice library.  I decided to nap in the van.  I missed perhaps our most favorite character on the road.  There was an old Russian gentleman clad in a plaid shirt with jeans who liked to make his opinion known. 

“I have intense desire …

After the show, we headed on to the airport and on to Astana, Kazakhstan’s frozen capital.  Astana is among the coldest capitals in the world.  It usually ranks around the number two coldest capital in the world, after Mongolia’s Ulan Batar.  Last year, it was coldest. 

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Where do I go to get my man membership back?

I commented "what a lovely purse," and realized I had been around five girls way too long. Thanks ladies of Della Mae.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Keep Talking

My PD friend, colleague and semitic-brother-from-another-mother John Nahas created a new site called JohnnieTalker (

KEEP TALKING. READ... what the Talker is reading, WATCH... what the Talker is watching, and LISTEN... to what the Talker is saying. Opinions on Politics, International Affairs, Society and Culture.  
The Talker is about informing and arguing for or against something, or both.  
John is one of the most astute political minds I know, and he does a wonderful job aggregating and offering adept analysis and perspective.  He has a keen understanding of the American political scene and of global affairs, especially of that Sandbox our Semites share.  I would highly recommend keeping tabs on the page, following it on twitter (@johnnie_talker) or liking it on FB (/jonnietalker).

The little things...

After a month of washing my clothes in hotel sinks and bathtubs, I finally have some properly laundered attire. Showered and with warm, clean clothes on. I smell of sandalwood soap and soft detergent. I am clean and happy; as always, it is the little things in life that mean the most.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


Following the hotel fiasco, I got in-touch with my Consulate contact the next day.  She was mortified to find out what had transpired.  Apparently, the Consulate’s booking agency had made the reservation for October not November.  And she had not been allowed to meet us at the airport as she usually would because of issues with overtime.  But it was okay.  She asked if we could switch hotels that day, but I explained that given the late arrival and the need to really rest, we needed to stay put and could move the next day.  That was acceptable and understood.

We finally had a solid rest day of no travel, no touring and no activities.  It was needed for all.  I didn’t have a complete day of rest, as I needed to do a bit of work but still it was a welcome break.  I took a little walk out and about in the city.  Along my route, a car had broken down with a flat tire on the tram tracks, and the tram operators were stopped at either end of the intersection, sitting back napping with their feet up on the dash as they waited for the car to be moved.  I wandered my way to the grocery store, where I picked up a variety of salads for the girls and I to picnic on back at the hotel.  I also picked up a bottle of khymis- fermented mare’s milk.  The fermented mare’s milk was bubbly and pungent, and tasted just like what you would expect from something from a horse’s teat.

The girls sent their laundry out, something that proved unexpectedly and unbelievably costly (thanks per diem), and lounged around at the spa and otherwise.  The spa had a floridly tiled Turkish bath (hamam), a wonderful marble steam room and an excellent sauna—just the ticket to cook the chest cold out of me.  I lounged around the evening, drinking vodka and eating potato and leak soup with quail eggs, while reading Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. The rest day was restful, and everyone regained some vigor and glow.

Back to work on Tuesday.  We had a bit of confusion trying to check out, as I had the Dellas put their per diem hotel rate on their cards, and I picked up the difference of charges on the biz card while they separately paid for their own laundry and minibar.  Sounds easy in theory but not so in practice.  And the laundry bills came back astronomically high.  We probably bought the hotel a new washer/dryer.

We headed over to the State Philharmonic to do a sound check and rehearsal with the local Kazakh musicians who the Dellas would be playing with that night.  The theater was gorgeous, with Kazakh music legends on giant seals looming high above the theater and white stucco designs swirling about.  The sound check was the best of the ‘Stans, with two Russian bears who knew their craft.  After the quick sound check, the Dellas got to work learning the local fav “Illigay” with a dumbro player and a woman who played a flute that looked kinda like a potato with a few holes in it.  After a few hours, they all felt comfortable with the musical exchange for the evening’s show.  We were also supposed to have a collaboration with the Kazakh philharmonic, but that fell apart last minute and they instead would play a song or two of their own that evening.

We checked into the original hotel, a lovely, modern Ikea-esque establishment called the Dostyk Hotel.   The girls went on their way, and I wandered around the city to do a lil people watching.  Kazakhstan is quite a bit more cosmopolitan and affluent compared to its neighbors.  Its GDP is about 3 times as high as the rest of the region, thanks to an abundance of oil and natural gas.  It showed in the fashion and favor of the people I saw.  And I found the place to be so utterly counter-intuitive.  Asian faces meet Russian fashion.  It threw me a bit to hear Russian come out of the countenance bearing almond eyes and wide, pronounced Asian cheeks.  I enjoyed my wanderings around the snow-covered city, taking in views of the mountain range in the distance, and made my way back to meet up with the girls ahead of the evening’s concert.

The evening’s concert was a lot of fun.  Prior to the concert, the Kazakh philharmonic was warming up on traditional Kazakh instruments, and the Dellas fell in love.  I lost Kimber the fiddler, who had found her way into their practice session and was playing her fiddle with a troupe of khobuz (beautiful bridgeless violin) players.  While the Dellas played, the phil musicians were lined up off stage, listening in.  It is always a good sign when musicians drop what they are doing to listen in on other musicians.  The collaboration with the traditional musicians went extremely well, and the crowd went nuts when the Dellas played the Kazakh favorite.

For dinner, my friend Adam, who works on ethno-musicology of the region and his Kazakh girlfriend, as well as the pao Tristram, joined the Dellas and me.  Over vodka and thinly-sliced horse meat and other Kazakh delicacies, we had a long evening of fun.  Thankfully, the flat tire gods kept things from really getting out of hand, but bababalas ensued anyways.

Monday, December 03, 2012


On a night-off in Bishkek. Spent it in a bar with a giant picture of the St. Louis Arch. Spent it flirting with a Russian-Kyrgyz bartendress named Anastasia, who kept serving me krygyz cognac and russian vodka. Ended on a street corner, eating fully-loaded shwarma- feeding the ends to the gutter dogs. The most dangerous part of my evening was the ice, which I slipped on a couple of times. kol haolam kulo gesher tzar meod...The whole world is a narrow bridge covered in ice, you mustn't be afraid to slide across it- there is shwarma waiting on the other side.

 PS: And PLEASE, someone explain to the Russian-speaking world that "Nasty" is not a good diminutive for the otherwise beautiful named "Anastasia"

Gastrodiplomacy at its finest

Glorious nation of Kazakhstan wishes you bon appetit: assballsin

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Glorious Entrance to Glorious Nation

We arrived at 1am into a snowy Almaty airport, and things immediately felt different.  Like for starters, the Dellas phones lit up with wifi.

The faces had changed considerably.  Gone was the Eurasian Uzbek and Turkic Turkmen, here now was the Asiatic Kazakh face.  The Kazakhs look East Asian, but more like Korean with  the moon-shaped face and wide cheeks.  I am speaking in very broad generalities.  Kazakhstan is actually quite diverse.  It was a place of exile for waves and waves of the forced-departed.  From German minorities in Russia to Koreans living too close to the Russian Korean border to even Jews that Stalin sent, Kazakhstan was a site of forced migration.  But a funny thing happened: most who were exiled here found that they kinda liked it and stayed put.  It was only within the last decade or two that Kazakhs actually formed a majority in Kazakhstan.

Anywho, we were picked up by the Embassy in a USAID van.  Normally we were met by a Embassy rep, but this time our contact was unable to meet us.  We grabbed our stuff and piled into the van.  We drove through the snow and slush covered streets glittering with christmas lights.  Passing signs for Saks Fifth Avenue, we looked at each other quite puzzled.  Had we departed Absurdistan?

We arrived to the immaculate Dostyk Hotel around 1:30am, tired and worn out from the road and ready to enjoy our first real day off in quite some time.  We filtered in to the lovely lobby and went to check in.  And then it all went awry.

The hotel had no record of our reservation.  None.  And they had no space.  I got on the horn to try to call the Consulate contact, but there was no answer.  So I broke out my sheet of numbers supplied to me by Post. And none of them worked either.  We hadn't left Absurdistan.

The hotel was trying to help us sort through it.  We got a hold of the Embassy emergency contact in Astana, who relayed to the emergency contact in Almaty, but they couldn't get in-touch with anyone either.  At this point, I was losing my voice to a chest cold.  The girls were downcast, and one of the members had received some awful news from the states.

The hotel found us a place nearby of similar quality that had rooms available for us.  Post couldn't reach any of our contacts.  Fearing that if I didn't get the girls some rest real soon, I was going to lose them for the tour, I decided that it was executive decision time.  I told the hotel to tell the other hotel we were coming.  I told Post we would deal with it in the morning.

We got a van to the Tien Shan Hotel and arrived around 2:45am.  Except the hotel didn't quite have the rooms we thought.  At our per diem rate, they only had doubles available or executive standards that were about $100 more per night.  Perhaps they would have standard singles the next day and they could move.  Perhaps Post would want to move us.

It was late, and the Dellas needed to get some real rest and sleep in their own rooms and not move on rest day so more executive decisions came flying.  I negotiated with the hotel to give us the first night at a discounted rate since we arrived so late that was equal to their per diem.  I didn't want them to have to move that day so I got them rooms for their rest day and decided I would figure it out with Post.  I broke out the biz card to hold the rooms, and sent them all off to bed and their rest day.

We raided the minibar fridge for a much-needed drink, and I got to bed around 4am.

The next morning, the Mother Hen Wellness Society procured an hour of massages for the Dellas as reward for 2 weeks with nary a day of rest and as means to keep the tour from falling off-kilter.  US-Turkmen Friendship Society sprung for facials for the two who had helped keep US-Turkmen relations strong through a Day in the Museum.

In public diplomacy as in life, actions speak louder than words.  The Dellas have the longest tour to the most countries (the likes of which are not easy), and this was a great investment in keeping the tour rolling.  The Dellas spent their day off, lounging around, spa-ing and doing laundry (at an exorbitant rate, I will save that for another post).  After a day of rest and recuperation, they looked rejuvenated and ready to handle the second half of the tour.  

Cut your cultural diplomacy chicken wire

Our time in Turkmenistan ended in as much of a blur as it begin.  We arrived back to Ashgabat after our bleary day in Turkmenabad.  As long as our day was, it wasn't nearly as bad as that of the Clinton Curtis Band.  Apparently, 4 of 5 band members got food poisoning.  They had a day of programming in the city of Mary.  2 didn't make it out of their hotel, another two dropped in the middle of the day.  In the end, it was just the eponymous Clinton Curtis on stage, giving a true solo performance.

 Back in Ashgabat, a few of us went to the Altyn Asyr bazaar to do a little shopping.  Clinton, Celia, Kimber and Courtney got phenomenal huge furry telpaks (traditional Turkmen hats).  While they were furry hat shopping, I went carpet shopping.  Carpets from Turkmenistan are the finest in the world.  Handmade and beautiful.  I bargained my way down on a nice one for a decent price, and it is comfortably stowed in my daypack where my camera bag used to go.

We returned to the concert hall for the final performance, but my camera bag never returned.  So it goes.  The final concert featured 3 songs from each group.  The groups had to specify which songs they were doing prior.  Two of the songs the Dellas mentioned they were playing, they had already played at the previous concert.  Rather than try to deal with an entity that was not adept at change, the Dellas simply let them announce the songs, then played something else.  No one was any the wiser.

The Ari Roland Quartet and the Clinton Curtis Band each played their sets, quite well I should add.  After Clinton finished, he tossed his new fluffy fur hat on his drummer Drew.  Given that Drew is a black man in shades, the site of a furry white telpak on his head had the crowd cheering.

All the bands came out together to play a final number, Iko Iko complete with fury white telpaks. The crowd roared with delight. When I had found out they were doing Iko Iko, immediately alarm bells went off.  One of the main choruses of the song is "I'm gonna set your flag on fire."  I got worried that such lyrics might be fodder for misconstruement (what is future tense for misconstrue?? misconstruction?), so I raised my own red flag.  They agreed to change it in a fashion, and sang "gonna cut your chicken wire."  I think it was a worthwhile save.

After the final American music performance, there were a number of Turkmen musical performances and dances from gorgeous girls in flowing blue and green silks complete with stunning dangling silver jewelry.  I  missed it all.  I was so tired and worn out, I went back to the Dellas dressing room and fell asleep on my bag.  I even missed the soon-to-be-Grammy nominated song of US-Turkmen friendship that was specially written for the US-Turkmen Culture Days.  I will see if I can find the lyrics, that was a classic.  I woke up just in time to take the last bow of the show.

We packed up our stuff, and headed over to the lavish Presidential Hotel for a post-party reception.  We had to eat and run, because we had to be at the airport in 45 minutes to catch our flight to Kazakhstan.  We quickly ate, bade goodbye to our new friends and drove through the glitzy, empty streets of the Neon Vegas of A-stan and in to the CIP (VIP) lounge to drink tea and eat dried fruits and nuts as our departure was expedited.