Thursday, November 29, 2012

Belmont Burgers

I had some phenomenal caballo sausages last night. Why didn't anyone tell me that horse was so tasty? I am going to have a buffet at the Kentucky Derby. Can equestrian be considered a dietary habit?

Conversations on PD

A great interview of PD Undersec Tara Sonenshine on the Campbell Conversations on what PD entails, and how it functions in the age of social media.  And when asked to name some innovations in public diplomacy beyond social media, her answer was the use of food for pd.

When I give lectures, I usually like to paraphrase Gandhi: I have nothing new to offer- connecting people through food and music is as old as the hills; the innovation at hand is using it in a foreign policy context to build better connections and communication between people and nations. 

Gulag Gastrodiplomacy

Iron Chef meets the Russian prison system.  Amazing.  Any man who has paid his debt to society is welcome to be a gastrodiplomat in my book.  Speciba JB!

The Glory of the Registan (Samarkand)


Me: Do you have a Bloody Mary?
Bar tenderess: Vhat?
Me: Bloody Mary.
BT: Vhat?
Me: tomato, vodka...
BT: Oh! Blooooody Mari.

PS: And it came bloody. My friend Celia came down as I was getting it, so I ordered a second. The bill came, and the first bloody was expensive but expected. But in the second bloooooody mari,the bar decided to use Beluga vodka, more expensive than Grey Goose. A $20 shot of vodka in the bloody.

I was shocked.

I said I hadn't ordered this. Yes, but we ran out of the local so we used it instead. I protested that they should have said something. They agreed, and offered me a pot of tea. No thanks, can I have a drink instead. Fine, you can have a $10 Heineken. So at 10:30am, I am drinking an overpriced Heineken to make up for an exorbitant blooooody mari. Oh, Absurdistan....

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


After a long night of concert, we had the unenviable task of waking up at 4am to catch a 6:30am flight to Turkmenabad for a day of workshops and concerts.  Restless over my lost camera bag, I woke up at 3:30am, and got myself on out.  I ordered some tea for the girls to help their morning bleary, and we sipped black tea and ate white bread as we tried to pull out of slumber.  Unfortunately, Celia was feeling quite ill and was throwing up in the bathroom.  I wasn’t sure if it was exhaustion or otherwise.

We took the embassy van to the airport and were joined by the CAO Courtney Doggart.  We crossed multiple security check points, and serious pat-downs until we got to the gate.  The girls are promptly passed out on the benches in various overlapping designs.  An hour later, we arrived to Turkmenabad. 

Not Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea as I had thought.  Someone, perhaps it was John, had mentioned to me that Turkmenbashi (named for the former presidente) had gone ala Leningrad and had been renamed Turkmenabad, so I told the girls to get ready to dip our toes in the Caspian.  Not the case.  Turkmenabad was on the complete opposite side of the country, not far from where we were in Uzbekistan, when we had our last crazy long day when in Khiva and Urgench.

We arrived to a cold tarmac and were welcomed into the VIP lounge.  Celia needed to expel again, and I started to suspect food poisoning.  After a bit, a fleet of black Mercedes with tinted windows met us.  We would be riding around in style. 

As we stopped at a hotel for breakfast, I started debating scrubbing Celia for the day and putting her up in a room to rest; when Celia was puking a third time, I decided it would be best.  I got Celia a room, some pro-biotics and a basket of bread to eat when she could hold something down, and tucked in the poor girl for a day of recuperation.

Down a Della, we then made our way in tinted Benz to the Specialized Music School.  We were greeted with a phenomenal performance of student musicians waiting out front with dutars and rababs, strumming a classical Turkmen melody.  After they finished their lively, lovely tune, we walked in the building and were greeted by another performance, this time a cool jazz piece.

As the Dellas were warming up, Shelby noticed that her bass wasn’t playing correctly.  She opened it up and found that a part had cracked and separated- possibly a big problem.  Luckily, one of the members of the jazz band that had just serenaded us had a contrabass.  He offered to let her use it for the program, and the show later.  We had the Ministry of Culture contact a violin luthier in Ashgabat and made arrangements for it to be fixed the following day.  And the show went on.

We entered a room filled with girls in red dresses, with large metal broaches and two braids hanging down to their waists and a colorful square cap on their heads.  The red dresses signified that the girls were in university, as opposed to green dresses for school girls.  The Turkmen women were quite beautiful, with full wide faces and honey brown eyes.  Some were more Asiatic, others more Turkic.  The guys were dresses in suits with the square, colored caps on as well.  On the wall, picture of the president playing music looked down on us.

The Dellas picked up without a pause without Celia.  They all can sing, and are such talented musicians in their own right that they just switched up some of the pieces.  The crowd absolutely loved them.  In one cute song, Courtney the guitarists said that since there were so many beautiful girls in the room, she was going to play Hank Williams “Hey good looking, what you got cookin’?”  Later a few girls came up and said how much the song met to them, because they consider Western girls to be so beautiful and didn’t really value their own Turkmen beauty.  The irony is that 85 percent of the girls were gorgeous.

The Dellas performed their pieces, then the music school reciprocated.  They did an incredible acapella song, then the aforementioned “California Dreaming.”  They also broke out some traditional instruments to play for us.  After the show, the school bestowed a bevy of bouquets on the girls. Then the head master came up and gave all the girls beautiful broaches, which he pinned on them.  Seeing me, he told me to stand up.  He then asked if I had a fiancé.  I laughed and said no, and then made a motion that I was looking for one, and glanced back at the sea of girls.  They erupted in laughter.  I had a bevy of girls come up to take pictures with me after the show…

After the program was done, the traditional musicians jammed a bit with the Dellas, and the students came up to take pictures with us.  I had many, many girls come up to take their picture with me, hoping perhaps they could get the broach.

The students escorted us out, and stood in full attention outside the school as we popped back into the black Mercedes and off to be guests of another museum tour.  The lavish museum featured pictures of the president and his work with other world leaders, as well as interesting exhibits of life on the Silk Road, and life in the yert. 

  The girls discovered the wonders of Iranian feta, and have been living off Greek salad.  I am on a borscht diet, and try to have a bowl a day.  After a nice, leisurely lunch (ie girls sleeping head-down on the table), we headed on to the American Corner.

The American Corner was full of teens on the internet or reading American books. There were about 20 of them in the little conference room to have an opportunity to practice their English in a chat with Della Mae.  The Dellas introduced themselves, their states and their music.  It was a fun interchange, and I am quickly becoming a fan of the American Corner initiative.  In a place like Turkemenastan, where internet penetration is probably counted on one hand, the American Corner is a phenomenal way to draw in youth and indirectly connect them with America.

After the American Corner, we headed over to see how Celia was doing.  She had slept all day, and color had returned to her face.  She felt comfortable enough to join, so we grabbed her and headed on to the show.

The concert was great. The crowd loved them. There were a lot of students on hand from the morning program, and they were dancing to the music.  It is funny, I watch the Dellas play everyday, and I love their music a bit more each day.  I find I have a new song stuck in my head on a daily basis. 

And the Dellas did something I will never forget.  Celia gave me a shout-out on a dedication before Sweet Verona.  I was walking between the bottom and top half of the aisles, so I started waiving to the crowd.  Celia laughed, and said I wasn’t shy.  Then Kimber said, “And ladies, he is looking for a fiancée….” To which I blushed as red as the crushed velvet chairs, or the red dresses that the college girls were wearing.  The whole place giggled.  And our Min o’ Culture handler ran up to the tv cameras to make sure that did not end up on air.  They sang my favorite Sweet Verona for me, and propped up against a pillar, I mouthed every word of the sweet song.

After the concert and a round of pics (the concert hall literally turned the lights off to try to get the throngs of autograph and picture seekers to leave the Dellas), we headed on for dinner in a blinged-out yert.  Yep, a fancy fancy yert, where we dined on soups, salads and warm bread.  There was even a salad ordered called “Man Salad,” which consisted of sliced tongue and mushroom in mayo.  We caught a late flight back to end the long but fun day. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On anticipation and expectation

"What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expect generally happens."
-Benjamin Disraeli

Monday, November 26, 2012

Marco Paulo spies the Silk Road

“The history of the Silk Road is neither poetic nor a picturesque tale; it is nothing more than scattered islands of peace in an ocean of war.”
-Luce Bulnois

In the rich and fertile terrain of Central Asia, the great Islamic Samanid Empire rose.  Great scholars like Abu Ali ibn-Sina—better known in the west as the great Avicenna, made Bukhara a light of the world at the turn of the first millennium.    Some two centuries prior, Al-Khorezmi (algorismi, sound familiar?) worked of Al-Jebr.

In the fateful turn of events, in 1218 a Khorezmian governor in Otrar (in modern day Kaz-stan) received a trade delegation sent by one Chinggis (Genghis) Khan to inaugurate commerce.  Fearing the burgeoning Mongols, the governor decided to viciously slaughter the emissaries in cold blood.  Until that point, the soon-to-be-great Khan had been weighing commerce versus conquest; with the slaughter of his emissaries, he chose the latter and stormed across the steppes.  The Mongols conquered all in their path, and when they reached Otrar, Chinggis personally watched the aforementioned governor have molten silver poured into his ocular cavities.

The Mongols went on to sack the great Bukhara, with an orgy of violence and destruction.  Mongol soldiers raped and looted, and horses trampled holy books in the streets.  The great Khan took to the pulpit of the Great Mosque of Bukhara, and declared to the terrified congregants, “I am God’s punishment for your sins.”

It could be said that centuries later, Central Asia still has yet to recover its former glory.

“They came, they sapped, they fired, they slew, they looted and they left.”
-The Persian historian Juvaini

On Russia

“Russia has two faces, an Asiatic which always looks toward Europe, and a European face which always looks towards Asia.”
-Benjamin Disraeli

Bouncing through old Sovietica, and seeing all the continued Russian cultural influences, I am marveling about the continued Russian influence on Central Asia, from music to culture to food.  Fascinating.  Makes the work of one Lena and her research on Russian public diplomacy and soft power in the former Soviet Empire all the more fascinating.

On Central Asia

I have gone from a land of ruddy cheeks and bushy eyebrows (Uzbekistan) to wide-set cheeks, honey brown eyes and long braids (Turkmenistan).  Now I am in Kazakhstan, surrounded by feline faces of the Steppes.  High, prominent cheek bones and almond eyes.  The faces looks somewhat familiar, but the Russian spoken sure throws me.  Can I still use the word "Mongoloid?" Is that socially acceptable?  I love the real version of people watching.

All the leaves are brown

In what was probably the most surreal bit of cultural diplomacy I have ever seen, while in Turkmenabad Della Mae was serenaded with the song "California Dreamin" by the Mamas and Papas by a troupe of Turkmen choir girls in beautiful red dresses with giant, gorgeous colored broaches and long braids down to their waists. Caleefornia dreamin, on such a vinter's day...

Saving US-Turkmen Relations

After the turkey day feast, Clinton Curtis, his drummer Drew and I picked up the libations, and we went back to the hotel to all hang out.  We drove through the fabulously lit city of Ashgabat, which is something akin to the Dubai of Central Asia.  All lits and glitz bouncing off the white marble.

Upon our return, we realized that Zaid- the sax man of the Ari Roland Quartet was lost.  He had been left at the dinner feast when he left the bus to use the bathroom.  As Tim Wilson always said, if you ain’t on the bus….

Ari Roland took a cab back and found poor Zaid along the way walking home.  It wasn’t close and it was practically freezing out.  Thankfully, Ari found Zaid, who had no dollars, manat (Turkmen money) on him, only Turkish lira and a bank card that wouldn’t possibly work.  Nor could he find a cab that would agree to let him run into the hotel to pay after arrival.  Luckily Ari found he wandering back

All the bands sat around, drinking vodka, amarula and Jameson, and having a fun time swapping stories.  At some point, the idea was thrown out that we would all skip the museum visit program slated for the following morning.

I woke up early Friday morning, and gave a little heads-up to the Embassy contacts that we were going to pass on the museum tours.  A few minutes later, a frantic phone call came back that this was not possible, and that the museum tours had been arranged by the Ministry of Culture, who would take it as a real slight if no one showed up.  Suddenly, the balance of US-Turkmen relations hung in my hands.  I managed to negotiate that we could simply offer a token showing from each group, and this was kosher.  I then went about rounding up band members to take part in the museum tour.

I ran into the Clintonistas in the lobby.  The poor fellows were so jetlagged, they hadn’t slept a wink all night.  I impressed upon them the urgency that a few come to the museum tour, and ultimately three agreed to come along.  Then I went about getting a few Dellas.  Jenni Lyn the mandolinist had expressed the slightest of interest in going, so I knocked on her door.  She wasn’t interested, so I begged and bribed and she agreed.  The Turkmen-US Friendship Society will be buying Jenni Lyn a small carpet.  I bumped into Courtney the guitarista in the lobby, and got her by hook and by crook.  Ari Roland and a few from his crew joined in as well.  In the end, we got enough of a representation to preserve US-Turkmen friendship one day longer. 

We had thought we were going to the Carpet Museum to see the formerly-World’s Largest Carpet, but rather that got scrapped, and we ended up at the Turkmenistan National Museum, where we learned everything we would ever want to know about the history of Turkmenistan and its people.  The museum was beautiful, marble with golden eagles out front and the world’s tallest flagpole at the entry way. 

Inside, we received a very thorough tour about Independent, Neutral Turkmenistan, its five regions and its ancient history.  The archeology section was interesting, even more so if we weren’t all so exhausted.  Then we visited the wing of gifts to the President, and his statements of his programs to better the nation, as well as a bevy of pictures of him with the people and carrying out various tasks like looking at x-rays or standing in fields of cotton. 

We finished in the hall of lavish gifts and presidential slogans, and were collecting our coats and walking out the door, when the director of the museum came running up to exclaim that we had missed the ethnographic wing.  Gleefully, we returned back inside to finish our museum tour. 

We returned back to the concert hall for a real sound check this time.  As the Dellas were soundchecking, the Clintonistas stopped in to listen and were very impressed.  A few broke out their phones to record the Dellas warming up, and sat rapt in attention during their session.

The other two groups warmed up, and returned to the dressing rooms.  I made a few stops to check out the crowd, and take in the Turkmen.  There were elder women in blue or green shawls with brightly colored bonnet-scarves.  The younger college-age girls were in long red dresses with bright square hats and Being the good band-aid that I am, I sent out for a bottle of vodka for each group to help lubricate the evening’s performance.  All the groups joined in the Dellas dressing room, as had drinks and ate fairly-edible Chinese food.  I called out a request for “Friend of the Devil,” and all got to singing and playing guitars.  ‘Twas a lot of fun. 

I missed a bit of the Dellas performance, as I was occupied with a tv interview with a Turkmen station.  Turkmen tv interviews are a bit different.  They don’t so much as ask you questions, but rather you are expected to pontificate for 2 minutes on relevant topics.  Back inside, apparently, no one was translating for them for the first few songs, so a bit got lost on the audience.  But once the translation bit worked out, the audience warmed up quickly to them. 

I popped back in for Ari Roland’s set, and then later for Clinton Curtis’ show.  At the end of Clinton Curtis’ performance, he called the Dellas back out on stage for an encore performance.  I left my bag at my seat as I got closer to take pictures of the encore.  After the show ended, since I had my camera wrapped around me I didn’t immediately go back for my bag.  Then as we were starting to get ready to leave, I realized I needed my bag.  I went back to look in the auditorium, but it was nowhere to be found.  I retraced all my steps, but it was gone.  I was hopping that a security guard or one of the volunteers had perhaps picked it up.  Everyone was leaving, and the Embassy folks offered to call about it the next day so I headed out.  I had my camera, but was missing a new 300mm lens, an old I-pod mini, a rough guide to Central Asia and a swiss-army knife, and most importantly, my journal.  All the other stuff was replaceable, but it pained me the most to have lost my journal.

Turkey in Turkmenistan

Well, I officially spent Thanksgiving the capital of A-stan.  We arrived last night to Ashgabat (“The City of Love”).  Thankfully, our entry was facilitated by the CIP (VIP) entryway.    Well worth the price, as we sat in a lounge while an expediter got our visas and passports.  We loaded up the van and came through the empty streets past a giant marble fountain with colored lights to our hotel just across from a giant circular marble circus building with a giant gilded cone.  The hotel was pretty dead.  The bar closed at 8pm (there is an unofficial curfew in the country around 10pm), and there was no one milling about the lobby.

The Clinton Curtis Band had a far different entry, that involved a plane full of Turkmen bag ladies.  Apparently, plane loads of Turkmen women fly to Istanbul, but never leave the airport just simply shop at the duty free to buy bags.  Clinton and the gang said that the women were eying them wondering why they were on the flight.  The ladies were also fighting for space in the overhead, dropping people’s stuff out as they were trying fill up the bins with their duty-free bags.  When they landed, the women tried to hand them bags to bring them through customs, but they refused in confusion.

We kinda milled about thursday.  I took a little walk through town, then made my way to the American Corner Library, where people can use the internet and check out books.  The center was closed, but was to open later.  I met Chef Jim Lahey, who was going to be cooking us Thanksgiving dinner.  Apparently, he is a famous chef and baker of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York.  He had been at the culinary diplomacy soirée in DC.  Great, the Dellas had wanted to help cook turkey and bake pies!  I asked if he could use some assistants, which he was pleased to accept. 

I sent the Dellas off to help bake, and met some of the other bands, members of the Clinton Curtis Band and the Ari Roland Quartet.  Some press appeared out of the blue and wanted interviews, which Ari and others gave.  The journalist and photographer kept trying to rope me in to an interview and photos, not seeming to understand I wasn’t really with the band.

The Dellas returned later, unbaked over some confusion.  The chef was glad to have them, but the Turkmen matron of the restaurant would not brook their presence.  Meanwhile, her own stuff slowly slowly chopped veggies to the rapid consternation of the chef.  But they thankfully ended up meeting a woman who owned a restaurant next door, who gave them such rare commodities as lettuce and other fresh veggies that were edible to their tummies.

All the bands loaded up their luggage and we drove across the splendor of Ashgabat.  Giant new marble buildings as far as the eye could see.  Huge fancy new glass structures surrounded by marble apartment buildings.  Golden monumental towers flanked by statues of great Turkmen wrapped in gold filling.It looked like a Central Asian Dubai.  But all is not as it seems.  I was told that most of the apartment buildings were uninhabited, given that their price tag was far more than anything that the average Turkmen could spend.  Many of the buildings were owned by various ministries, who in turn leased or sold them to favored employees.  We even passed the famous statue of the Turkmenbashi that would rotate to always face the sun.  That had been in the center of the city, but after his passing, it was moved to the outskirts.  It no longer rotates.

We drove to the palatial domed theater which was flanked by giant statues of lions.  We entered through the back of the theater to find a bit of the surreal.  Flat on the stage were two giant (20 feet or so) pictures of President Obama and President B...   As the bands started unpacking, the portraits slowly were raised high above.  On first hoist, the Obama picture was a little higher than Pres B. so it was dropped and raised again.  We later came to find out that this was the first time another president was displayed side-by-side of Turkmenistan’s president.

Ladies first, and the Dellas got first sound check.  They were about 45 minutes in to their sound check, when they found out that this was not even a real sound check, and they would have to do another the following day.  They were not happy.  45 minutes of feedback in their face for nothing left them a bit sour.  I got Celia to come talk a walk to cool off, and we crossed an underground passageway to a giant golden conically-tapered monument flanked by statues wrapped in gold.  We spied out across the marble city, of which the likes I have never seen.

An afternoon of faux sound checks, and then we headed out across marble city to have our Turkey dinner.  Apparently, on the older buildings it is marble façade- marble grafted onto the old Soviet architecture.  We drove through golden roundabouts and domed marble ministries and column was.  The Dellas in the White City.

We arrived for a lavish turkey dinner prepared by the aforementioned chef.  There was a bit of schmoozing before we got down to eat.  The thanksgiving feast was phenomenal.  Your standard Thanksgiving accoutrements of delicious turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, some of the best stuffing I have ever had and an incredible cranberry sauce with hints of tangerine.  The only thing I missed was the cranberry in a can, and my family’s sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows.

I spent the evening chatting with two Turkmen girls who work for the US Embassy.  Both had studied in the US (Idaho and North Carolina) under the FLEX exchange program and a college exchange program.  Sadly, budget nitpickers are cutting these academic exchange programs.  What I have found across the ‘Stans are so many people who work for the US embassies who had previously studied in high school or college exchange program in America.  The return on investment is quite incredible.  The present and future generations of FSN have studied and lived in the US, and are socialized to American norms and values and end up being key players in American cultural and public diplomacy outreach.  This is an incredible bit of public diplomacy socialization, that is drying up over short-sighted budget cuts.

Chef Jim later came out to discuss the feast he had prepared.  He spoke of the joys of roaming the Ashgabat markets in search of ingredients for his feast.  He said he felt like a kid in a candy shop.  He spoke a bit about the new culinary program of the State Department, and the use of food in fostering connections.  He said something I really liked: “Food is culture; food is people.”  The evening finished with some incredible pumpkin and apple pie.  The pumpkin pie was some of the best I think I have ever had.  The pumpkin filling was perfect, and the crust tasted like it had a bit of toffee crunch to it.  Both pies were covered in homemade whipcream.

This Thanksgiving was a bit poignant in that being so far away from home, in such a unique country, I could really be thankful for all we have back home.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


The days in Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan have passed, the time was frenetic but fun. 

On Saturday, after the masterclass/jam session at the Pop Circus College, we had lunch at the National Plov Centre.  The huge hall served up the national dish of Uz.  We got bowls of pilaf with lamb, chickpeas, slivered yellow carrots and quail eggs.  I got to try a piece of horse sausage— it was not that bad. It tasted a bit like roast beef.  Our embassy hosts had place tone down the grease of the plov (as it is cooked in heaping amounts of rendered lamb fat), but it still proved a lil too greasy for them. 

After lunch, we went to the studio of the Uzbek musician Jassur, who the Dellas would be performing with at their big concert on Monday.  It was fun to watch them jam together over different styles and different instruments as they worked on the Uzbek fav, “The Andijon Polka.”

That evening, we had a lovely diplomatic soiree at the Ambassador’s residence.  The Dellas performed some of their own music and played with local musician Jassur and some of his bandmates.  The ambassador was a gracious host, and pinned Uzbek-American flags on each of the Dellas.  He gave us all small medal-coins.

Sunday was a rest day, and was spent shopping.  This Virgil led the Dellas through the magnificent Tashkent Underground, on to the huge bazaar Chorsu.  We wandered through the Spice Dome, with the Dellas picking up paprika, cumin and saffron.  We tasted tart dried cheese balls and salty pickles as we circled the Spice Dome.  From there, on to silk shopping as the Dellas bought meter after meter of the silken fabric.    

Monday was spent soundchecking at the lovely Turkestan Palace.  The concert hall had crushed velvet seats, and a giant florid eye above.  Outside in the entry hall there were giant pastel paintings above of scenes of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  The soundcheck took a while to get situated, as things are never quite easy.  After fiddling with the two bands sound checks, we spent the day resting a bit ahead of the concert.  The Dellas had a nice session with Uzbek students studying English, who got to sit in on their warm-up.

A quick soundcheck prior showed some holes in the previous soundcheck, and got everyone a bit skittish, so I sent for a bottle of vodka to steel the nerves.  That did the trick, and the show was a huge hit.  The packed hall loved the fast, rhythmic melodies of the bluegrass tunes, and the Dellas charm won them over quite quickly.  And their jam session of Uzbek music with Jassur & Sultan had the crowd roaring in their seats.  They finished with everyone playing a Della song called “Stay All Night,” which is more about jamming late than amorous encounters, but got a big laugh from the audience in a cute lost-in-translation moment.

Tuesday was busy, with no rest for the weary.  We had to depart to the airport around 6:30am for an 8am flight to Urgench in the very west of Uzbekistan.  In Urgench, we got to tour the fabled Silk Road city of Khiva, with its mud-ochre fortress walls and azure majolica and mosaica.  The freezing winds were whipping through the old city, as we toured about the blue and white beauty.  And there were a ton of people getting married.  We must have seen 5 or so brides and grooms walking through the city for wedding marches.  And it was cold.  Those poor brides in their white gowns with nothing covering their arms from the cold.

After the chilled tour, the Dellas went on to the Khorasm Music College.  They received a local show of traditional Khorasmi music and dance, with all sorts of fun instruments and costumes.  Then they played for the music students, and had them tappin’ to the pickin’.  The musicians came back on stage for the Dellas to collaborate on some Uzbek music, and the crowd went nuts when they all played the “Andijon Polka.” 

Afterwards, they met with and played for a whole group of Uzbek English students at Urgench State University (“The Fightin’ Khoarasmi!”), and the adorable students put on a puppet show to display their English skills, plus some song and dance.  Then they peppered the Dellas with questions to practice their English. 

We ended our time in Urgench with dinner in a colorful yert.  We had local river fish served in two varieties, cooked in peppers and tomatoes and fried.  We then headed back to the tiny Urgench airport and caught the flight back to Tashkent.
The last day in Tashkent was a bit of a down day.  We did some final shopping in the market for instruments, silks and ceramics.  Kimber the fiddler got two traditional instruments (a 2-stringed dutar and a mellon-bowled rubab), and most of the girls picked up doyras, traditional Uzbek drums with rings inside.  I got myself what I think is a Zoroastrian-styled tapestry.  While the girls went to get more silks, Greta the CAO, Celia and I went to a master potter’s studio, and I got some beautiful crafts that the Embassy is shipping home for me.
We headed over to the Embassy to ship stuff and the Dellas did some interviews with the local press, then they raided the commissary for things like peanut butter and other accoutrements of home.  We grabbed some dinner then headed off to the airport for our flight to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.  We got there with 2 hours to space, but the gate didn’t open for a while so we hung out in the airport killing time.  Finally, the desk opened with about an hour and change until the flight and our Russian bear of an expediter Andre muscled his way to the front.  We checked our bags, and bid farewell to Greta- the Cultural Affairs Officer who had been working with us from the US Embassy.  It was poignant because this was Greta’s last project before she heads out in a few days back to the US and eventually on to her next assignment in Peru.  She really enjoyed having the Dellas and an all-girl bluegrass band as her final project.
We passed our way through customs and security, and all the forms I had so dutifully kept and warned the girls to hold on to tightly were not checked.  We climbed onto our tiny Uzbek Air puddle jumper, sitting snug as bugs in the tiny plane. 
About 2 hours later, we arrived in Ashgabat.  We were shepherded to the CIP (VIP) lounge to wait while our visa forms were expeditously handled.  By around midnight, we were to the Ak Altayn (White Gold) Hotel in Ashgabat.  Happy Turkey Day from Turkmenistan!!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Samarkand Pics!

The Dellas Take Tashkent

I took the fast train back to Tashkent, and marveled at how smooth it could be even going upwards of 220 km/h (about 140mph).

I arrived back to a wet Tashkent, and descended below into the metro (The "Tashkent" Station). I had heard that the Tashkent Metro was splendid, and this is indeed the case. I had been told to expect a bit of a hassle by the security service when entering, and to try to walk straight past and into the metro.  I tried such business because they were dealing with someone else.  I put my token in and tried to walk through but a counter woman hit the block button and I got nailed in the knees with closing gates.  They called me back, and I just called on my natural defense mechanism, playing dumb (The "der" card).  But the security was fine, and not a bother.  They asked a few questions about where I was from, where i was going and what I was doing here.  They even wished me well on my trip.

Once in the metro, I saw what the fuss was about.  The Tashkent station was made of marble, with white and blue sculptures on the wall.  The area was light and open.  Unfortunately, because the Tashkent metro was conceived for a secondary purpose as an underground nuclear fallout shelter, no photos are allowed.  Pity, because the stations were so lovely.  The train itself, a blue wagon that harked back some years, was a bit old but comfortable.  Interestingly, there were no advertisements anywhere.  Not in the station, not on the train.  That was a refreshing change.  I went about 5 stations before I reached my destination, and was enthralled by the different stations I passed.  Each one was unique in its design, and all were beautiful.  Some had Soviet Art Deco lamps hanging down; others had art deco columns.  One particular fav was filled with scooped out cupolas on the ceiling that were embroidered in gilded baroque patterns.

I arrived to my stop at Chorsu Station ("The Bazaar") and walked out to find my guesthouse.  As I was walking up, there was a young man who wanted to practice his English with me.  We chatted a bit, he spoke a decent amount.  He also tried to help me find my way.  I was going to 40 Ozod Street, some 3 blocks from the train.  He told me he lived on 48 Ozod street, so I started following him.  Except it didn't remotely feel like I was going in the right direction compared to my map.  I kept asking (Ozod? Da, Ozod).  We walked about 20 minutes, until we got to an old Soviet apartment block.  I was sure it was wrong, but I at least went to check.  After some confusion, he took me back to an apartment building that was number 40.  I thanked him, but knew I had been accidentally led astray.  I consulted my map again, and figured out where I had veered off.  I trudged back out, and stopped at a kiosk to ask the name of the street I was on.  Ogul, not Ozod.   The fellow was very helpful in a very unhelpful fashion.  I grumbled my way back to the street I was on before he led me off course, and trudged my way another two blocks to find the right street as I had thought.

I found the guesthouse, and deposited my stuff before going to get a famished bite.  I had a bowl of langhman, an Uzbek spaghetti of an interesting consistency.  It came in a bowl of pepper and tomato soup with pieces of lamb and onions.  The warmth of the soup, along with some green tea, helped soothe my annoyance.  I returned to the hostel to have some Uzbek cognac with a group of Japanese backpackers, and a French fellow who supplied the cognac.

I got up early from the guesthouse, and made my way through the metro to the Hotel International.  I got to see a number more stops, and got to admire the uniqueness of each station.

The Hotel International used to be the Hotel Intercontinental.  Because of Uzbek business practices, there are all sorts of laws about joint business ownership with the government.  Apparently, the government had promised to do some renovations, but as the time was getting closer, it seemed unlikely.  Some shady stuff was circulating about, and one day the entire Intercontinental staff just quite en masse and the Intercontinental pulled its name.  So the hotel was renamed "The Hotel Incontinent."  It took 2 weeks for anyone to point out the issue over the new name, and finally it was changed to the Hotel International.

Anyway, I was met by the Embassy staff, and we went to get the Dellas from the airport.  I waited in the parking lot for the staff and expediters to ferry the Dellas through customs, and had a cup of coffee at a restaurant nearby.  The coffee was 3,000 som but because I wanted to take it to go, the fellow said it was 4,000 som.  I asked if that meant I got a bigger coffee.  No, he said.  I asked then why did it cost more.  He smiled and replied, "Because this is Uzbekistan."  I smiled back and forked over the extra 1k.

We snagged the Dellas and stopped for a quick cup of coffee as they shared in the van about the Pakistan leg and all the adventures in PK.  As you can imagine, it was intense.  They had been kept under lock-and-key in Lahore, so it was a bit tough.  Also, their motorcade had been in an accident while in Lahore.  But on the whole, they had loved Pakistan, and enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of the Pakistanis.  As expected, it was nothing like they imagined, and nothing like the media images of Pakistan.

Since their flight came in a bit late, we had to take them directly to the Uspensky Music School.  At the Uspensky Music School, the music school kids opened with a few numbers of Uzbek music, and some jazz. We had been warned that jazz was still very much king in Central Asia, from years and years of cultural diplomacy promotion.  I even heard a story about a Cajun group named the Pine Leaf Boys, who visited Uzbekistan-- everyone liked their Cajun music but kept asking when they were going to play some jazz.  Let know one forget, jazz won the Cold War. The Dellas played their own set, and the music school kids loved it.  They did some collaborations, and then the Dellas were mobbed as rock stars for pictures and autographs.  One adorable little girl remarked to me: "Splendid, Super!"

After the program, we let them check in to the hotel, then went out for dinner at a nice cafe.  While they loved the food in Pakistan, they were quite happy for some Italian.

We returned to the hotel, and I thought it was going to be an early night.  Kimber the fiddler and I went to the bar for an expensive (by Uzbek standards) drink.  We planned to have a beer and call it a night.  As we were ordering, we got chatting with two Russian guys at the bar.  One asked my origin, and when I said "Jewish," he replied: "pity."  He then started talking about how the Jews caused World War I, to which I laughed and said that, yes I am Gavrillo Princip and I am part of the Black Hand.  We quickly left him be and went to the corner on our own.

As we were having a drink, the fellow came over again.  He asked if he could join, to which I said not really.  Maybe if you don't talk anti-Semitic garbage.  But he insisted, so I said fine if he was going to be nice and no politics. We got to chatting, and it turns out he was a Jew and nothing was what it seemed.  The more we got to chatting, the more this stranger got more interesting.  Like his knowledge on Southeast Asian languages.  We basically figured out he was probably KGB on holiday.  He had a lot of choice opinions on geopolitical affairs, and kept bringing us shots of vodka and beers.  The night stretched long and interesting, as some Marine-looking American fellows at the bar seemed to be paying a lot of attention to us as well.  The Tournament of Shadows Drinking Game had begun.  The night ended later and sloppier than expected, but most memorable.

The next day was only semi-painful.  The Dellas had a program at the Pop Circus Music School.  We were welcomed with a drum barrage, then the Dellas gave a performance followed by the music students reciprocating.  One girl with some serious pipes gave a rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," which was a bit impressive.  The music students also played Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb," which got the principal up and dancing with the Dellas.  It was a bit surreal.  Then they all collaborated together, it was all a lot of fun.

After the school performance, we went for lunch at the famous National Plov Centre, and introduced the girls to the Uzbek specialty.  Even with the grease on minimum, it was still a bit much for their Western tummies.  I enjoyed the plov, with lamb and chickpeas, raisins, yellow carrots, boiled eggs and boiled quail eggs.  I also tried the aforementioned Mr. Edvard sausage, which tasted a bit like gamey roast beef but wasn't bad.

After lunch, the Dellas met with their musical collaboration partner in Uzbekistan, Jassur & Sultan (Famous in UZ!).  Their collaboration was quite amazing and impressive.  Jassur had supplied them with some tracks to learn, and we hung out in their studios, watching the musicians sink up.  Some of the traditional Uzbek music combined with the bluegrass style was absolutely beautiful.  Fiddles and rubabs.

We had a oh-so-brief break before heading on to the Ambassador's residence for an evening music and fun at his residence.  Ambassador Kroll was quite nice, and gracious in hosting us.  We had a good time amid lots of music collaboration (and questions of how I landed such a lucky gig).  The ambassador got to pin US-UZ friendship flag pins on the Dellas, and gave us all fancy ambassadorial coins.  'Twas a fun nite out.

Today was a rest day.  After a slow morning, I led the Dellas through the immaculate Tashkent subway to the Chorsu Bazaar.  We met Greta the CAO, who took us through the shopping.  The girls got to shop at the bazaar, and had a good time in the spice dome, getting saffron and cumin, and tasting tart yogurt balls and salty pickles.  They also bought lots of silk, and I did a bit of negotiating.  The silk merchants were not the most fun to negotiate with.  One fellow got crabby at my requests for a better price, and simply said "No sale."  Since it wasn't for me, I was just bargaining for a Della, I laughed and backed away.

A quiet rest of the evening ensued.  Tomorrow, they are having their big concert at the Turkestan Palace in Tashkent. The Dellas are apparently the hottest ticket in town, and the show is well sold-out.

Gastrodiplomacy meets the Academe

I have a new article on gastrodiplomacy in the academic journal Public Diplomacy and Place Branding.  Thanks to its editor Prof Nick Cull, who invited me to submit my gastrodiplomacy missives.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Dellas and The World

PRI's The World interviewed Della Mae for their Pakistan tour.  I set this up.  Alas, because of the censors in Uz, I haven't been able to listen to the report.  When you hit a banned site, you are redirected to the MSN homepage.  Is Bill Gates in cahoots with Uz censors?

Mr. Edvard

I was so hungry, I ate a horse.

Friday, November 16, 2012

So long, Sam!

Fortuitously and fortunately, I woke up without a hangover.  I got up around 6am and decided to watch the sun rise over the Registan.  In the darkness, I walked over to the giant complex.  I debated just sneaking in under the cover of darkness, but decided I had a better view from the benches in front.  I reclined on a park bench, waiting for the golden orb to arise. 

The trees above me were filled to the brim with birds, and their cacophonous calls filled the air.  Somewhere in the distance, a car backfired—letting off a shotgun-like sound.  Suddenly, all the flocks fled the tree, and the sky became black.  I have never seen so many birds fly off at once.  It was like the sky made dark, like the arrows that filled the sky of Thermopylae.  For a solid minute, the sky was filled with the departing birds. 

Alas, the sun was blocked out by overcast, and while the softer light made me appreciate the Registan in a different manner, it wasn’t to the profundity I had hopped for. 

I came back to the hostel and decided to try to find a hammam I read about it the guide book.  I wandered through the streets amid the kids on their way to school.  I love cities in the morning, as people are going about their early routines.  I found my way into the Old Town, in the old Jewish quarter, and wandered through the labyrinth lanes.  While I did find the hammam, and a synagogue, the bathhouse was closed.

I returned to the guesthouse and had breakfast with two Japanese fellows.  I found the guest house proprietor and asked about the hammam.  He didn’t know why that one was closed, but showed me where there was another.  I managed to find this one as well, with some help from a map drawn for me by a really nice clerk at a hotel. 

The hammam was interesting.  Easy game to play: find the Jew in the Uzbek bathhouse.  Reminds me of a time I was in Xi’an, China, and literally everyone in the bathhouse was staring at me because they had never seen Hebrew aerodynamics before.  Anyway, I soaped and scrubbed with buckets of hot water and sweated in the sauna.  So nice.

I returned, grabbed a bite in the market (delicious, flaky samsa-lamb and onion pie, and some kind of roasted squash pie) and went up to Shah-I-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums with exquisite azure mosaica and majolica.  I had received some advice that I could get in for free if I came up the hill and entered via the graveyard next to it.  Having grown fed up with paying entrance fees that were 10 times the local price, I figured I was due.  The cemetery itself was fascinating.  Almost all the tombstones had vivid pictures of the deceased carved on them.  It was kind-of eerie but interesting to see those who had passed away.  And I was able to get into Shah-I-Zinda for free, which was a splendid strip of mosaic work.

My last stop for the day was at the Afriosiab Museum about a km down the way.  Afriosiab was the name for ancient Samarkand (also known as Markanda), and the museum is built on an important archeological site.  Interestingly, the lights were off in the museum so I peered at centuries-old pottery in the dark.  I even received a flashlight from the ticket man to look at a 7th century fresco of the Sogdian King Varkhouman, who was receiving foreign dignitaries on the backs of elephants and camels.

I hitchhiked my way back into town, grabbed my stuff and hopped a bus to the train to speed back to Tashkent.  So long Samarkand, you treated me amazingly well.  There is so much more I would have liked to have seen (like the Tomb of the Prophet Daniel), but I this simply means I will have to return (and see Bukhara, which I sadly don’t have time to see either).


I went to bed around midnight, only to wake up at 4am due to jetlag.  I popped a Dramamine, but I am quickly realizing it makes a terrible sleeping aid because when I woke up the next morning I was sufficiently gorked.  I felt like I was swimming in slow motion.  I had breakfast with Charlie, and we talked a bit about the pains of re-entry and reconnection.  I haven’t traveled for as long a stretch as him, so I can only imagine what that will be like.  We bade farewell, with the off chance that we may be in Sudan around the same time next year.

I hopped the local bus back to the train station to get my return ticket to Tashkent the following day, then returned to see the stunning Registan.  It was one of the more impressive places I have ever seen.  I was swimming in a sea of azure mosaics amid turquoise domes.  Meaning “Sandy Palace,” the Registan was medieval Samarkand’s commercial center and plaza. 

I first entered the Sher Dor Medressa, which was built in 1636.  High above are roaring cats that are supposed to be lions but look more like tigers.  Inside the medressa complex was porticos covered in swirling mosaics.

Next I made my way to the radiant Tilla-Kari Medressa.  Tilla-Kari means gold-covered, and it was.  There was an effulgent gold and azure spiral-pattern ceiling and wallway.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.  Inside the mosque was old black-and-white photos of Samarkand.  I sat out for a while in the pleasant courtyard, enjoying the afternoon light and breeze.

Finally, I made my way to the original Ulugbek Medressa, which was the oldest of the structures (built in 1420).  Inside a portico, a green-eyed girl convinced me to buy a beautifully ornate teacup.  I am a sucker for green eyes.

After taking in all the delights of the Registan, I made my way down to the tomb of Timur (Tamerlane).  Given the man’s propensity for both pomp and conquest, his tomb was ornate but surprisingly subdued.  Interestingly, there was his horse’s tale hanging from a ten-foot pole.

I returned and later went out with Mark for dinner.  We found a local Uzbek restaurant that had some interesting paintings of the Registan in the days of the caravan routes.  That surely must have been a site when coming out of the desert.  The food was delicious, we split a plate of lamb with stewed apricots and onions.  It was the clear winner, it was sweet, savory and delicious.  The other dish, which was beef with potatoes and onions in a kind-of broth was good, but not even close to the other dish. 

At some point during our dinner, the other patrons in the restaurant started dancing in the middle of the restaurant to the music.  It was a birthday party, so we sung happy birthday and they gave us pieces of cake.  We were joined by a brother-sister traveling duo from Russia (the sister lives in Richmond).  Somewhere along the way, I got called up by the birthday party to dance.  Central Asian dance is just my style- little rhythm and flailing your arms like you are an airplane.  I ended up dancing in the center of the party for a while, it was a lot of fun.  Then the vodka came out.  The guys kept pouring me shot after shot.  They made me knock down about 4 in a row before I was able to get them to let up. I figured I could sacrifice my liver in the name of cultural exchange. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Silk Road 2.0

 After a sleepless jetlagged night, I headed on to the train station.  I caught the high speed rail, a smoother and faster train than anything America could offer. Not only is America's rail infrastructure second rate, it is second to Uzbekistan.

Under a dapple-grey sky, we glided past small cities and villages, past bucolic pastoral fields and king cotton.  Uzbekistan has an interesting relationship with its cotton crop, one that includes forced labor picking for (almost) all students and sometimes their faculty.  I chatted with two 16-year olds on their way to Samarkand for an international judo competition.  One of the teens was in charge of the whole Asian judo federation’s IT program.  I also chatted with a doctor-turned-pharmaceutical rep, who mentioned that the pay as a doc in Uz was abysmal and he made more money selling pharma.  The sun burned orange in the distance, under an iron-grey sky.

Fields gave way to cliffs and mountain, and I plugged in the headphones to listen to Russian folk music as I read about the fascinating history of the region.

I arrived some 2.5 hours later to the Silk road legend of Samarkand, and caught the local bus through town.  I chatted with a few locals on the bus in broken conversations.  One fellow spoke English well, and was being friendly but some tattooed numbers on his finger made me worry if he was being too friendly.  He was fine, and perhaps the jetlagged nerves were wearing thinner than usual.  We crossed through town and I ended up in a market.  I trudged up the market and through the pedestrian pass, past stunning turquoise domed mosques with azure scripted calligraphy.  I overshot the guest house, and some locals pointed me back the right way.  They pointed to my red scarf, and pointed to a red door in the distance- I love charade conversations.

I found the Bohadir B&B, and immediately knew I was in the right place.  An ornately carved spiraling wooden door welcomed me.  The proprietor took me in and showed me the rooms.  Whereas I thought there were dorms, there were none, as he explained that was only in the summer.  My two options were a single for $12 and a single for $15.  I immediately took the cheaper, cavernous room under the stairs.

He welcomed me into the courtyard with drying grape vineyards in the middle of the area.  He sat me down on a cushioned bed-couch, and brought me a pot of tea and a plate of watermelon, sesame-covered cookies and candied apricots swimming in sugar syrup.  The candied apricots were divine.  I sipped the tea, pouring the sugar syrup into my saucer and munched the sugared fruit and snacks.

I decided to see the more expensive room.  It was a bit more open and airy, so I decided to splurge the extra $3.  I think I made the right choice, as the room is warm and comfortable, with beautiful carpets on the floor. I took a nap to ward off the jetlag that kept me up all night. 

After the nap, I walked back out past the giant turquoise domes, and stopped to take pictures of an old man in blue robes with a white wispy beard in the backdrop of the marble walls.  I gave him some backsheesh for his visage.

I wandered into the market passed ladies selling soft agora and found a lunch spot.  I entered the restaurant and a women who spoke English well helped me pick out some shihlyk (kebabs).  She led me out to a wood-framed bed with quilts on it that passed as dining tables in the outdoor sun.   I took off my shoes and plopped down cross-legged amid the other eaters.  Women in colorful shawls picked at plates of bread, meats and salads.

Lila the waitress brought me a pot of tea and a half-moon bread with a crispy indent and topped with black seeds,  Soon thereafter came a plate of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and sliced onions, dusted in dill.  Then the piece de resistance, the shishlyk on flat skewer spears.  One kebab was ground lamb glistening with a fine sheen of meat juice; the other with meat chunks layered in white fat.  I picked at the shishlik, breaking it with bread pieces, stabbing the salad mix and covering with a pinch of salt.  It was delicious.

After the meal, I sat cross-legged in the sun, listening to the afternoon banter in a language unknown and dipping my bread into the green tea, happy as I possibly could be.

I left the restaurant and wandered around the huge open-air market, stopping to take pictures of gold-tooth grins and playfully flirting with the spice matrons.  I picked up pinches of saffron, cumin and paprika (Yes Mom, for you).  After wandering through the mounds of colored spices, and piles of pickles and persimmons and pomegranates, I made my way to the aforementioned turquoise mosque, better known as the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

The Bibi Khanym mosque, built by Tamerlane for his Chinese wife, was magnificent.  I wandered around the courtyards, admiring the stellar calligraphy on the azure mosaics and the half cupola mosque space.  The slowly setting sun lit up the tiles and calligraphy in a golden hue. 

After the mosque, I crossed the street to the Bibi Khanym Mausoleum, a similarly turquoise-domed structure.  A tour guide who was leading around an Uzbek tour group flirted with me, then offered to let me climb to the top of the mausoleum  for a little backsheesh,  How could I say no.  So I got to climb to the room for a great  view across the city and of the mosque across the way.  Eventually, I came back down to view the mausoleum.  The mausoleum was beautiful, with intricate inlaid blue lattice windows with gilded tops, and blue-and-white drawings of peacocks.

I wandered back to my guesthouse and later down for dinner.  In the dining room, there were two other fellows sitting there as well.  Just as I walked in the lights went off.  We laughed and started chatting as the fireplace gave us our only modicum of light.  In a few minutes the lights came back on and we had a proper introduction.  As I got to chatting with the two fellows, I quickly realized that those you find backpacking on the silk road are of a different variety.

Mark was Canadian, by way of England.  The grey-haired, blued eyed traveler had been trekking in Pakistan, and was on his way to Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Burma. He had been doing some serious camping along the way.

Also an Englishman, Charlie—sporting a shaggy beard that turned a baby face grizzled,  had been on the road for 2.5 years.  He had biked (!) his way from jolly ol’.  He had been to some 35 or so countries on the road, and was biking back to England by way of Capetown.  Yes, over then down then up.  Charlie was just about to reach the overall mileage to have biked around the distance of the world.

As you can imagine, we had ample fodder to chat about the world we knew.  Dinner came, which was a rich and savory lamb soup with potatoes and carrots and meat.  I added in bread balls pulled from the warm giant half bagel without a hole.  I sprung for the first round, because it isn’t often I find fellow wayfarers who make my travel proclivities seem provincial.  We sipped beer in teacups as the lights intermittently went on and off.  Charlie had a couple of remarkable stories, such as being thrown into a game of bukhizi, the Central Asian game played of rugby played on horseback with a goat carcass.  He got talked into playing, and then almost mauled when someone tossed him the goat.   Luckily, he was an adept rider, having ridden horseback across the Mongolian steppes (the one time in his journey not on the bike)

Later in the evening, we were joined by Yuri¸ a Japanese fellow who had been traveling for about a year, and Lorena, a French girl who was bouncing around the ‘stans.  It would seem that Central Asia is a long way from the gringo trail, and those who traverse it are an upper level of backpacker.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Settling up, Astan-style

I went to try to pay for my hotel bill in the evening since I am leaving early for Samarkand.  I was informed that because I arrived early in the morning, I was being charged an extra half day.  I tried to protest, pointing out that my reservation was made for that day, and not the day prior, and the embassy had booked it as such.  My protest got me nowhere.

Fine.  The bill for 2.5 days came to $125 USD.  I asked if I could pay by credit card. No only cash.  And it has to be in local currency.  But wait, I said, you are charging me in dollars, why can't I pay in dollars.  No, we only accept som.

They first offered me to change my dollars at the official rate, but I balked at that (1,900 vs. 2,650 to the dollar). Then the woman offered to call a friend to change it at 2.1k to the greenback, but that still left me on the losing end.  She said I wouldn't be able to find a place open at that hour to change, but I thought otherwise.

I trudged out.  I first checking with a tout standing outside a plush hotel, but he offered 2,500, so I ventured on and back to the convenience store where I changed money the previous day.  My plan was to change $125 into 500 som notes and drop the bricks on the front desk of the hotel, but the fellow recognized me and was willing to give me the slightly larger note this time.  I tried to explain I wanted the 500 notes, but quickly gave up when linguistic differences foiled my plan.

So I left with my bundles, caught a ride on the side of the road in the car of an old man with a wispy beard and two kids in the back.  Everybody here is potentially a cabby, as I have learned.  I returned to the hotel, and paid out.  I laughed at the realization that the bill was based on the official conversion, so the hotel was actually losing money because my bill was significantly cheaper based on the outside exchange rate.

PS: In Abba We Trust.  Thanks to the AbbaTM for this article on local currencies in DC.  I got my hands on some Potomacs, which I gave to Harry's money collection.  

David and Bathsheba

How the mighty King David hath fallen.  

The King of Tashkent

With so many som bankrolls, I feel like the Uzbek Frank Wright. My kingdom for a rubberband.

fish in the sea

Smitten with a green-eyed tartar girl with big dimples. Mama Rockower warned me: girls of the world ain't nothing but trouble.

the tiny marble

‎"Problems don't have passports." -H/t to Adam Parr for introducing me to that grain of truth. He mentioned this as he noted the tiny marble we spin around on.

Who Wants to be a Som Millionaire?

I am a stranger in a strange land, one that I scarcely grok.

After two days in transit, I finally caught some shut eye in a bed.  I slept all day, and awoke around 3:30 in the afternoon.  I was a lil disoriented, broke and hungry.  I set off into the city to find some food and funds.

I had read in my guide book that Uzbekistan has 2 rates of exchange.  There is the official rate of around 1,900 som to the dollar; then there is the black market rate that everyone uses, which is around 2,700 to the dollar.

With a keen need for currency as a means to eat, I headed out into the city.  I walked through the broad, tree-lined boulevards through the heart of Tashkent.  I have been reminded of my days in Central Europe, with the wide central arteries, pastel European rococo buildings and soviet square boxes.  

I was not expecting Uzbekistan to be so mixed between Russian and Asian.  There is a tremendous amount of diversity in the capital of Euro, Eurasian and Asian, something I scant expected.  I was reminded of my Malaysian realization, and my realization: I wouldn't know otherwise.

My stomach was starting to growl, and I remembered the advice from Pavel that most teens spoke some English.  I found a crew of kids, of mixed Russian, Eurasian and Asian varieties and asked if they spoke English.  An asiatic kid spoke the most English, and he pointed me 200 meters down the road to the dunya, market.  I am finding that the Czech i learned years prior is just a bit helpful.

I started to walk away, then the kids called me back.  Apparently the convenience store they were walking into would change cash for me.  The kid put his arm around my shoulder and we walked arm-in-arm over to the shop.  I decided to change $40USD as a start.  I put my dollars down, and the clerk handed over a giant f'ing bundle of som.  So the largest denomination of bill in Uzbekistan is a 1,000 note.  It is unofficially 2,700 to the dollar, so it would kinda be like the largest denomination of currency is a quarter.  My situation was not helped by the store clerk paying me out 100k in 500 som notes.  I tried to protest, but he claimed that was what he had.  I laughed at the hilarity of the situation, fanned myself with the bundle and felt my tummy rumbling and decided that I would make do.

So what does one do with 100,000 som divvied up in 500 notes?  It sure doesn't fit in a wallet.  Thankfully, I was wearing my old Israeli army pants with giant cargo pockets, so I stuffed the rubberband-held bundle in a cleared-out pocket.  I continued on my walk through the city, stopping at kiosks to make small purchases, and trade 5,000 som in 500 notes for 1,000 notes.  At the first kiosk I stopped in, I traded 500 som too much, and the fellow was kind enough to point out my mistake.  The honest cashier handed me back the extra note that I had over-traded.

Slowly, slowly my bundle diminished by half.

It's all about the Timurs. As my friend John Williamson wrote on Facebook, PR is making it rain in Central Asia.

As night descended on Tashkent, in the wide tree-lined boulevard, the birds filled the trees and sang out an evening symphony cacophony.  It was an orgy of "caws" that no one seemed to notice but me.

I walked through the city center, past a decadent new theater with beautiful columns and a pair of silver cranes above.  I walked over to the giant statue of Timur (Tamerlane), which my guide book notes that has been gelded by strange statue thieves.

I made my way back for some dinner at a place called "Angel Food Restaurant."  I had a plate of chopped fried chicken and french fries with a side of tartar sauce.  Nothing like the American version of tartar sauce, this was the tar tar real deal with bits of eggs and pickles mixed in.  For dessert, I had a slice of walnut pie- think pecan pie but a bit drier.  I paid my 30k bill in 500 som notes, handing the waiter a tri-stacked bundle on the bill.

My jetlag had me out early, only to awake around midnight.  I popped some dramamiene to put me back out, but that stuff leaves me gorked and groggy.  I awoke this morning around 9:30am, feeling like I was swimming slowly upstream a world passing me by.  I caught a cab to the US Embassy to meet with my counterpart Greta ahead of the Dellas arrival.  The Embassy was technically closed for Veterans Day, so it was quiet.  We met and chatted about the upcoming program, and she gave me some tips for Tashkent and Uzbekistan.

After our meeting,  Greta dropped me at the famous National Food for lunch.  I did a little Uzbek gastrodiplomacy today, at a bustling famous Tashkent lunch spot.  I walked in past huge bubbling cauldrons of soups and stews.  Inside, a line of women in white hats chopped meat, fat and cabbage daintily with cleavers for a local delicacy called naryn.  The air was filled with the sumptuous smell of meat grilling, wafting in on the wet wind.

After a bit of confusion (given my lack of Russian language skills), I had the Uzbek national dish: plov- a delicious rice pilaf dish topped chunks of lamb with raisins, chick peas and slivers of yellow squash.  Cooked in lamb fat, the plov glistened with a sheen as its oily coating helped the deliciousness glide down my throuat and into my belly.  On the side came a round flat bread wheel (always face up!) and a side salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions swimming in their own juices.  To was it down, I had a beer served in an ornate gilded tea cup with blue-and-white florid patterns.  Not like Delhi, where in Paharganj I would drink bootlegged beer poured into a teapot and sipped from teacups, but a good reminder.

After I paid out my lunch bill (16k in 500 notes), I made my way to the train station to get a high-speed ticket to Samarkand. I had Greta write out for me what I needed, and I showed my paper to info desk and ticket booth.  I paid out 54k in in 1,000 notes, and I have a ticket to ride. I am extremely excited to visit the fabled Silk Road city.

I hopped a little cab back to my hotel, where I took a bubble bath to ward away the wet day, and took a nap.  After my nap, I made my way to the hotel restaurant, where I sipped tea and somehow ended up a fly on the wall of a Russian ballroom dance lesson. Once upon a time, I was in a ballroom dance class with Sarah Gurfein Amron and they might have well been speaking to me in Russian. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gastrodiplomacy, surveyed

Hey Gastrodiplomats, a friend and colleague at the New School is conducting a survey on gastrodiplomacy, please consider chiming in.

Welcome to Absurdistan!

I took my final leg to Tashkent aboard a midnight flight aboard Transaero airlines.  So began my favorite game: who doesn't belong here.  Usually the answer is me.

I was surrounded by faces of which I scant recognize.  Not quite European but not whole Asiatic.  Faces semi-angular, not the round moon shape of an Asiatic mien, but not the jutty contours of a European face.  Men with burnt black hair in short bowlish cuts with bangs pointed forward.  Some covered in the famous round fur Russian caps.  Gold tooth smiles abound.  Eyes somewhere between almond and oval, with a variety of honey brown to apricot pit black, planted softly in soft square faces.

There was also the oft-found face of the more Asiatic-eastern Kazakh, with more mongolian-esque features. Sloe-eyed does with black eyes and high cheek bones.

Interestingly, the older peasant ladies reminded me of the indigenous of Guatemala or Peru, with a similar squatness to face and body.

The stewardesses were all Russian, clad in black leather gloves to highlight the otherwise typical stewardess attire.  In their hands on the first walk-through, they handed out Russian newspapers.  I politely declined, but caught an eye of my neighbor's paper with a picture of Obama tearing up at the Chicago Headquarters.  The world is small.

We flew through the night, and across the wide expanse that is Russia.

As the wheels touched down, the crowd broke out in clapping, cheering and whistling.  While I have experienced this when landing in Israel or the US, this was by far the most heartfelt, as if the landing was in question (The Soviet Judge gives landing 8.5).  No sooner did the wheels hit the runways did people start to get up and try to grab their stuff from the overhead.  The black-glove stewardesses reappeared and shooed everyone back into their seats.

The plane stopped and people hurriedly hopped up in the aisles, only to have to wait.  And then Kenny G came on the loudspeakers.  Welcome to Absurdistan.

As I stepped off the plane, the crescent moon hung like a sliver scimitar in the night sky.  We climbed onto overcrowded shuttle buses that ferried us to the airport.  The hallway leading to the passport control quickly ballooned into a sea of people try to get to the few passport desks.  I waited semi-patiently as I thumbed my worry beads and wondered where I would find the expediter sent by the Embassy.  Finally, I saw someone behind the sea of people and behind the passport control with a US flag sign.  Through the throngs, I mouthed to the fellow that I was who he was looking for.  I waded through the passport line for a good 30 minutes, and was finally allowed to enter.

In the baggage and customs area, I met Pavel, who incidentally was also born on January 7, some years prior to me.  I grabbed my stuff, and he helped me fill out the customs declarations in English and Russian.  There was a clusterf-ck of people trying to get out through customs, with everyone having to get their bags x-rayed and the customs forms reviewed.  Thankfully, Pavel worked a little protexia and I got to skip the line.

We hopped in the Embassy van, and we sped through the naked and empty streets of Tashkent, and chatted about life here and abroad.   He dropped me at the hotel ("The Retro Palace"!!) and I caught a little shut-eye just as the sun was coming up.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

What the World Costs- New York City

free: paan, for my enthusiasm; internet cafe at the Apple Store
$.50 (4,500 Indonesian rupaih) : loosey
$1.00 (33 New Taiwanese Dollars): small cup of coffee around the city; a slice of NY-style cheese pizza
$1.25 (10 Guatemalan quetzal): Barley-eye drink with honey
$1.50 (15 Mexican pesos): ginger beer at Carib grocery store
$2 (9 Peruvian soles): Chinese noodle soup with sour vegetables; sweet paan; egg and cheese on a roll
$2.10 (250 Japanese yen): veggie patty
$2.50 (14 Egyptian pounds) : one ride on the subway; falafel from the famous Mamoun's
$3 (16 shekels): bubble tea in Chinatown; a bowl of borscht at Krolewkie Jadlo in Green Point
$3.50 (2.5 Jordanian dinars): Onion rings on the Coney Island boardwalk
$4 (245 Pakistani rupees): Happy Hour beer at the Bearded Lady; a knish at Paul's daughter in Coney Island
$5 (20 UAE Dirham) : Student ticket for Asia Society Museum; pair of sunglasses
$6 (270 Indian rupees) : a plate of fried spinach & mushroom and potato &a cheese pierogies at Krolewkie Jadlo
$6.50 (60,000 Lao kip): 500ml Heineken in Central Park
$8 (98,000 Vietnamese dong): Curry Vegetables and rice and peas
$10 (12,500 Iraqi Dinar): Student ticket for the Frick Museum
$12.50: pack of cigarettes (not that I am buying, just noticing the astronomical price)
$16 (26 Turkish Lira): ricotta fritters, oven-baked eggs w/ polenta, ricotta and tomato & bottomless bloody marys at Giovanni's
$17 (55 Malaysian Ringit): One-way Bolt bus from New York to DC's Union Station
$19 (800 Philippine Pesos): 20 minute taxi from Williamsburg to Prospect Heights, including tip; ticket to Mets game
$22 (12,000 Chilean pesos): Chinese foot massage
$27.50 (20,000 Jamaican Dollars): One-way tripper bus from Bethesda to New York
$1,080 (17,820,000 Vietnamese Dong): one month sublet for one bedroom apt in Prospect Heights
$1,100 (A gazillion Zimbabewean Dollars): one month sublet for a room in a 3 bedroom apt in Park Slope

En Route to Tashkent

Amid a bit of banking confusion, I departed yesterday from Dulles to Frankfurt.  I was supposed to get a business debit card for my trip.  First the card got delayed.  Then I received the famous "Ass of American Voices" card.  Too bad the card really was an orifice.  It was mistakenly created as a card that would only allow deposits, not cash withdrawals.  Somehow that seems apt, given the name on the card.

I worked out with the bank to get a card overnighted to me, but it was mistakenly sent to the St. Louis office.  My office manager Jeremy had to overnight it to me, and the card arrived the morning of my departure.  Except I hit another snag.  The temporary pin that was set up for me (since I was 200 miles from the nearest US Bank) wasn't allowing me to withdraw cash.  This was a big problem, given that I had fiscal needs coming related to the trip, with no access to currency.  As my mom drove me to the airport, I feverously worked out the kinks with the bank call center.  At the last possible junction, all worked out and I am bonafide.  My new card is also sans the shortened "Association" title.

My first flight took me through the night to Frankfurt (Main-hattan).  I blearily wandered around the Frankfurt airport as I waited for my next flight to Moscow.  I had been a bit nervous about my Moscow connection.  Russia has some serious visa regulations, but since I was in transit I had been informed I didn't need a visa for my connection (but I could not leave the airport).  The German customs officials made me go through passport control, and while that was a formality, it rekindled my Russian visa fears.  

I nervously waited in the clusterf-ck of a line of passengers waiting to board the flight to Moscow, but the airline official gave me no problem when I produced my onward ticket to Tashkent.

I slept intermittently on the next leg, and arrived to Moscow a bit weary and a bit nervous.  I followed the sign labyrinth that pointed me through the transit lines.  I found an odd corner that seemed to lead nowhere with a metal detector and a languishing attendant.  She checked my ticket and visa for Uzbekistan, and sat back down at her table.  I shot her a confused look, and she pointed me on to a security guard.  I showed my credentials once more, and he opened the door that let me directly back into the airport.  Thank the Czars, my transit visa fears were unfounded and I was not sent to a visa gulag.

I made my way to the business lounge, where I had a much-needed, mucho salubrious shower.  In honor of my Russian transit, I had a shot of vodka, and I am now sipping cafe americano laced with cognac and irish cream.  And of course, sampling the Russian gastro fare.  Delicious creamy mushroom soup with croutons.  Pies filled with mushroom and cabbage.  Buckwheat kasha with sides of beet salad.  Now the long wait for the final leg, and my second night sleeping on a flight.

On a last note, this might sound a bit axiomatic, but I am amazed at how much the Russians look like Russians. Hard to explain, but I have been to many places where the people don't look anything like I expect.  The women are beautiful, in a comely slavic fashion.  It is a pronounced beauty that is quite striking. They are also immaculately well put together.  I remember a Russian friend mentioning as much, as she expressed her disappointment in the more staid Parisians.  And the Russian men, are well...Russian men.  Some look like extras out of Anna Karenina central casting.  And another thing I have noticed immediately is that all the workers are from the 'Stans.  Kazakhs and Kyrgyz doing the menial labor.  I am always interested in who constitutes The Help.

In any case, this is a stirring reminder that I need to explore Mother Russia.  While I don't fear the Middle East, part of me still sees Russia as the Pale of the Settlement, with raping cossacks about.  I know my fears of a pogram is an overblown piece of my imagination, and I would love the country, its food and its people.  It is a place that is high on my list of travel destinations, but I feel like I have to do it right.  Russia has foiled far greater men than me.

PS: It is apparently "Brezhnev Day" here, and the tv keeps showing movies and documentaries of the Great Soviet's life. 

Glorious Nation of Public Diplomacy

A Man, A Plan, The Dellas, The 'Stans. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And the girls are doing Pakistan as well. Yes, I am finally off to play the PD Great Game across Central Asia.  I depart today for Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan ahead of the lovely cultural diplomatesses Della Mae.

A lot of people have asked me how I got so lucky.  Luck comes with a lot of hard work that includes dealing with the visa regimes of Absurdistan and the bureaucratic red tape of certain not-so-Foreign Ministries.

Not to mention staving off parental revolts from understandably-worried parents.  Good public diplomacy is always about listening to valid concerns and acting to show that you sympathize, even if you don't agree.  Yes, Pakistan has a travel warning, but so does Israel and Mexico.   As I mentioned to one mom, the thing she should really be worried about is Kazakhstan winter, not Pakistan travel warnings.

Don Pablo Quijote and the Silk Road

At the start of a new adventure, our favorite public diplomacy knight errant Don Pablo Quijote is charged with escorting the Dulcinea Dellas across the wide expanse that is La Manchastan.  Our hero lay in the reins as he set out on a bluegrass adventure across the Silk Road.

I'll Fly Away

Some glad morning when this life is o'er, 
I'll fly away; 
To a home on God's celestial shore, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away). 

I'll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory 
I'll fly away; (in the morning) 
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away). 

When the shadows of this life have gone, 
I'll fly away; 
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away) 

I'll fly away, Oh Glory 
I'll fly away; (in the morning) 
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, 
I'll fly away (I'll fly away).