The Revolution Can’t be Televised

Central Asia has been in the news this last week, and none of it for good reasons.

Whether it was Kazakhstan closing off a town that has been protesting since May 2011, or Tajikistan’s military operations in the countries eastern area where opposition forces were located during the 1990’s civil war, or the unrest in Andijan where protests in 2005 protests lead to a massive government crack down.
If you haven’t heard about any of these things, I’m not really surprised. The problem with reporting from Central Asia is that most western media outlets have no one there to report anything. The reason it is said, is because no one knows or cares about these areas. Yet due to Andijan the US was thrown out/pulled out of Uzbekistani bases, meaning that NATO troops had to be supplied through Pakistan, which went really well for NATO. Kazakhstan is where all of the worlds astronauts now take off from, and is a growing leader in energy production. The area is also stuck in the middle of one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the world, and yet rarely does news break from there. It is only after something comes out on the internet does news begin to leak out.

This last week  showed a stark reminder of what happens when journalists are not on the ground, and news agencies simply use other news sites or government information. Before it could really be checked out some websites picked up the story of protests in Andijan. The problem? There were no protests in Andijan. The Uzbek media had made it up.

Then there was the question of who exactly the Tajik army is fighting on its own territory. Some media sites picked up what the Tajik government was saying and claimed that they are fighting Islamists, others simply drug dealers. The situation though is fairly complex.  Now I realize that reporting can not get too complex because most people stop reading after paragraph five, but ignoring that the fact that the man they are after was, until a few days ago when the military came in, a government employee seems negligent.

The news from Central Asia is important. Gas prices will probably go up due to issues in Kazakhstan, NATO supply lines will be hindered and instability MAY spread south into Afghanistan due to actions in Tajikistan (and also if anything did happen in Uzbekistan). These situations will provoke comments and possibly responses from both China and Russia. Yet US news services do not have the resources or people on the ground to be able to explain this amazingly complex and yet fairly important part of the world to people. They must use the internet and what government controlled media releases, resulting in incorrect or incomplete stories.

Thus if revolution ever does happen in this part of the world, don’t expect it to be televised, because there simply isn’t anyone there to do so. As one writer recently wrote when talking about Uzbekistan, “In Uzbekistan, the real revolution may be written in retrospect.” The same will be true for most of the region.

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Thankful For…

A few weeks ago I wrote a post here about what the biggest difference is for me being back, and I said that I am far more thankful than I was before. In that post I had quiet a big list of things I was thankful of. So today in an effort to keep track of the things I am thankful for, and to remind me to keep my eyes out for things I created a blog that I hope to keep update at least 5 times a week. Some may be short, some may be long, but its just a small little way for me to keep being thankful, and if you’d like to read it, I’d be thankful for that as well.

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The Land You Choose

Today is Valentines Day. Many think its a day of giving and getting, whether it be cards or candy, food or flowers, but to me Valentines Day is a day for people to stop and take stock of those they love, more importantly those they have chosen to love.

If someone asks you how do you feel for your parents, you will probably (I hope) say, “I love them.” If someone asks you how you feel about your spouse or girl/boy friend you will probably also say, “I love them.” Same sentence, but do they mean the same thing?

Probably not, although I don’t really know about you.

Family is a bond that has a strong connection even in America, where we don’t live with our parents after 18 (though that has changed due to the job situation) and usually end up putting our parents in nursing homes.   Its a connection that no matter how much they annoy us, we will always love and care for fathers and sisters, mothers and brothers.We can make fun of our family, but woe to the one who makes fun of them who is not part of the family. We know their horrific faults, but we will stand up for them through most of it. It doesn’t matter at all what they look like, how smart or dumb they are, if they are massively infirmed or have some other problem. They are family. Its just that simple.

When it comes to those we choose to love though, we look for those who have characteristics we want, usually. We try and find those who are interesting to us, and will help us and nurture us in a similar way to our family, but in different directions. We want them to succeed and rejoice, like with our family, when they do, but they don’t HAVE to be in our lives, we put them there. And the love we have for them is much more powerful and also, sometimes, much more fickle.

For those who travel, you begin to realize that this difference of love holds true not just to people, but to other things as well. Towns, forms of public transportation, food, and countries.

Foods you LOVE

To me, as an American, I see both the amazingly good and the terrifically bad in America, and feel the urge to talk about both, and sometimes complain about the bad. But when I am outside the country I find myself routinely sticking up for things that in the US I would just say, “Ya, thats true.” or “It’s horrible.” (though somethings I would just write off the person as crazy in the US). And its because America is my family. Its my homeland. And I will knock it six ways to Sunday but you better not because you don’t even know the good stuff as well, or acknowledge it. People are very protective of their homeland, just ask a Russian, or a Frenchman, A German or an Egyptian. They know all the problems, probably way better then you ever could, but they don’t want you expounding upon them because you are still an outsider to their “family”.

But today, like I said, is a day to think about those you have Chosen to love. This morning I spent with my girlfriend, whom I adore. She left sadly, and so now I am briefly thinking about the land I have chosen to love. Tajikistan.

I don’t know why, but Tajikistan has truly captured my heart and mind. The country has problems, I will freely admit it, but for some reason I am always thinking and wondering about it. Its multitude of languages, some older than Alexander the Great. Its mountains, its multitudes of religions, its fruits, its welcoming people, its snowy glaciers and arid plains, its massive rivers, and excruciatingly long history. Its potential, and its spirit. The roads and needing to “drive like a snake”. The customs and the food. All these things and more have made Tajikistan my chosen land. I wasn’t born there, and I probably will not die there. I doubt I will spend more than 10 years of my life IN the country, but the country is one I have fallen in love with.

So when you travel keep this in mind. Love is just around the corner, and you never really know if the next town you stay in may become the town you choose.

On this Valentines Day, I’d like you to think about that land or city you have chosen, even if it is only for a brief moment, as you also celebrate the people you love. And let me know what places you love.

(For those who may be upset with me because my country isn’t Ukraine, sorry, but I like it like a friend.)

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Not Locals, Friends

Last night I talked about my recent travels. I met a bunch of people who had heard stories about me, and the places I’ve gone, and things that I’d done, but they’d never met me.  Early on, one woman commented: “The world today seems, so dangerous, so unsafe.”

I’ve heard this a lot. More than I might like to admit, and from different groups of people.  And yes, there are some scary situations that can happen when traveling, but I’ve learned, partially from Peace Corps training and papa Serghiy, my greatest travel safety tool.


Making friends with locals.

No joke, thats it. Whether I’ve been in Tajikistan, Ukraine, Egypt or India (though to be honest, the Indian friendships were almost all started by my lovely girlfriend), I’ve tried to make local friends. This is three-fold.

First: If you make local friends, they are going to invite you to cool places, like a Diwali festival in their village, or to a melon patch at 9 at night to eat melons under a full moon in 34 degree Cent. weather. These are amazing stories and memories that no tour book, no tour group, and more importantly no one else can give me or take away from me, and are therefore far more valuable than any thing else I buy on the trip.

Two: They will teach you some of the local customs. Some of the “problems” that traveller’s face when they are over seas is because they break some fairly sacrosanct rule for locals, that they think is not a big deal, or didn’t even know was a rule. In certain places in India, don’t kiss in the street, hold hands, or be overly affectionate. In Tajikistan, hand over heart to say thank you, no touching unless they come to hug/kiss cheek first, and always drink at least one cup of tea (its a fairly big insult not to drink any tea or coffee). Ukraine NEVER SHAKE HANDS OVER A DOOR! and put empty bottles on the ground. Also, hard for me, never whistle in the house.  These are things that you might be able to learn in books, but its those local friends that you will always explain to you some of the local customs that you might not get. Or at least tell you politely not to do it, instead of freaking out.

and Third: They are your friend. If trouble is coming, they will help you, warn you, or at the very least help you react to the problem. My best example of this is Tajikistan. The country has problems, the economy is… well, poor, but the people are exceedingly nice and hospitable.

One friday morning a bomb went off in the city I lived in, as you may know. By noon my two Tajik friends had already decided that a) I was going to leave the city for the weekend to keep me safe, and b) all the logisitcs. I literally got a phone call that said, you will spend the weekend with me, go here and meet my father. One of their fathers was in town already and picked me up, we went through tons of police check points. At each one the father explained who I was and that, even though he never met me, his son trusted me 100% so therefore he did too. The police waved us through, and I soon found myself in a small village, that I had been to once before. Not until a wedding a few months later had I found out that these guys made sure I was safe. I was constantly with one of three people at all times who were greatly connected to power structures in the community and could get help in a pinch, that one of them always had a way to protect me (soviet union army handgun I saw in the glove compartment of one car), and as one of them put it, “we would rather die, than see you die or hurt in our land.”

"protection... just in case"

People I worked with in Tajikistan were also concerned without a doubt, but friendships create something more than concern.

When people back home said, aren’t you afraid? I answered honestly that no, I felt really safe, because I had my back covered.

Think about how you try to help your friends on a day to day basis if you see they have a bad mood. Now think of how you try to help them out if there are bigger problems.

So for anyone who is planning on traveling far and wide, I say this. The world is not as safe as if you stayed at home all day, that is true, but the way you get through the problems at home, is the same way you get through problems abroad. You create a network of friends. So if you are going to travel, its safe…ish. It just depends on how you travel.

*I’d like to say this isn’t the only tool I use to stay safe, its just the most important, and the most fun.

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The Biggest Difference

The number one question this holiday season on everyone’s lips that I met was, “What’s the biggest difference now that you are back?” Is it the choices of food, the language, the culture, people?

None of the above. What is the biggest difference to me, and the one that keeps coming back, is the difference between what I see and others see as a BIG PROBLEM!

I got back to America on the 13th of December, just in time for everyone to freak out about what gift to buy for their loved ones. I would go into town and walk around, trying to visualize what someone I had seen days before would take this as. As I had been in Delhi, it wasn’t hard for them to imagine it. Then I put it into other countries I’d been to in the last few years. This lead me to think about the biggest difference in me now.

Here is the example. In December in Tajikistan most rural areas live without power. Power output is cut off to most of Tajikistan so that it can be sold to Afghanistan, therefore generators are installed in almost every house and office. If they didn’t they would not be able to do much after the sun went down, which is earlier than you really think about in lit metropolises. These generators are usually in the bathrooms of the houses as it’s the least used room, and generators produce a strong smell.

When I was in Tajikistan I met this nice guy, Ahmed, who had a melon patch, my friend and I went with him to his melon patch at 9 at night and until midnight ate melons till I felt like I was going to explode. The year before Ahmed’s brother, who was also my new friend’s best friend, got married in December. According to what my friend said, the day after the wedding, Ahmed called him crying. The night before Ahmed’s brother had gone into the bathroom to take a bath. Within the 20 minuets after he went in there until his new wife (literally a few hours old marriage) went in, he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The first time I heard this story I was horrified. The new wife discovering her now dead husband, dying in a bathtub, lack of power for months at a time for most of the population, all horrible, but the worst part was this is a tale that was so common to my new friend that he told it as if he were describing how his dog died. Sad yes, but it happens, it’s better to move on. So when I saw kids crying for $300 toys, or parents cursing (and I mean sailor type language) because their cell phones internet would not work, I couldn’t help but think: But we have power. We have food in stores, our friends don’t die by accident of carbon monoxide poisoning.

And I was honestly thankful for all of those things. So to answer everyone’s question what is the biggest difference now that I’m back it would be this: I am far more thankful of things than I was before. Whether its lights on the street. Sunshine in January. The Ocean. Cars that don’t make my lungs scream if I walk next to them. Foods from around the world. Safety standards taken seriously. Education for all. A refrigerator. Easy internet access. A toilet. A toilet that flushes. Running water. HOT RUNNING WATER!! Roads that are maintained. Fresh drinkable water from the tap. Free Public toilets. Electricity! The fact that most people wont ever have to leave their home area for months, years, decades even, just to make enough for their families to live. (though that last one is a bit hard to do even in the US I realize.)

If you’ve never experienced the lack I know its hard to be full heartedly thankful for them. But I’ve seen the lack, experienced some of them, and so now I am really thankful. That’s what the biggest difference is.

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Infrastructure Wars

In the deserts and mountains of Central Asia a possible war is brewing. One that has nothing to do with oil, and is the outcome of the way the Soviets built their infrastructure. Its not just coming, the conflict is already here, low grade and all, will it become a war? I dont know, but read to find out what I do know.

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“Men in Hats, Women in tunics and pants, and the Monobrow”

When you first land in Tajikistan you will be immediately struck by two things. One is that you are dreadfully tired. The flight probably arrives at 3 am and as it is 12 hours ahead of Pacific time, thus making your flight not only long, but getting in at a really awkward time. It will take you up to a week to really get adjusted to the time difference.

The second, and maybe more interesting (i dont know how much you care about sleep deprivation), is of course, how people look.

Most westerners stand out in Tajikistan, not because of our whiteness, so much, as that we don’t care as much about how we dress. There is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in Tajikistan, but it holds true for most Former Soviet Countries “People could be starving, and have no food on the table, but you wouldn’t know, because they always dress beautifully.” Here you always look good when you leave your house, even if it is only to go across the street for a stick of gum. When I was in Ukraine it was explained to me that this was because people used to have very little nice clothing, so it was constantly cleaned, and when you got home you got out of it fast so as not to have it get soiled by cooking, eating, or anything else you might do at home. Whether you are the president of the country, or one of the women sweeping the streets, you make sure that you outfit is beautiful and clean, and you look presentable to all. As my friend Javohir likes to point out, “You never know who you are talking to or when you will meet someone for the first time, so always look your best.”

But its not just that they look good. Men for the most part will be dressed in much the same way as any man in Europe. This comes from Russian influence, where it seems slightly uncouth to show your religion in what you wear. And yet one of the things you see many men, especially older men, wearing is whats called a tubeteika. This is a squared black cap with white lines around the base and designs in the triangles. (see below)


You may also see older men, and in villages some younger men, wearing big coats that look like they are made out of carpets or comforters. They arent though, called a khalat/khilat, they are very light and supposedly have a rich history themselves (the word has come into Russian language to mean any generic robe). These seemingly heavy coats will always come with the tubeteika hat. And sometimes they will be tied by a sash. This sash is actually very old, how old is kind of difficult to tell. But you will see this often as well, since the Khalat doesn’t have a way to secure itself. The folds of these sashes used to act like a pocket holding money, Naz (like tobacco chew in the US but a lot more potent), or other things.

Women though dress distinctly differently. Their costume combines the older asian outfits with the newer fabrics which have come from the Russian industry and modern China. I will start by saying I have never seen anyone wearing a burka. EVER. (I’ve been asked this a surprising amount since being in this country). I have seen people wearing a hijab (which isn’t all that surprising), though the president has been telling women more and more often not to wear them recently. Women, especially older women, commonly wear a scarf on their head covering much of their hair. As one woman put it to me, “Your girls put ribbons in their hair, we put scarves, different cultures, different histories. It’s just something we do.”

Their outfits though are what make Central Asian markets so beautiful. The common outfit (and traditional outfit) is a long tunic down to about the ankle with pants underneath, the pants and tunic are usually of the same material (though not always the case). This outfit comes from extremely far back (think 1000 BC or before) when many, if not most, of the Central Asian people were nomads who rode horses. The men, and women, both rode horses, hunted, and fought (some historians think the Amazons of Greek mythology were a Central Asian tribe), and any woman who has tried to ride a horse in a skirt or dress has found out quickly, this is a bad (if not the worst) idea. The pants though are interesting. I’ve been told, and seen for sale, some pants that are made of plain white cotton on top, and then starting just above the knees, move back to the same material as the tunic. Why? Supposedly the white color has a magical power that will help women conceive children and just feel good in general.

But the most surprising appearance is the monobrow. In the US where having one eye brow is so frowned upon that kids as young as 7 or 8 start plucking their eyebrows, here the monobrow is cultivated, and if non existent, drawn in. Its not every woman who does this, but a good number definitely do. So why the Monobrow? Well it seems that some believe (and I would like to emphasize SOME) that the monobrow begets supranatural powers, why that is a good thing I do not know. But it has a different reason, it seems Central Asian men, Tajik men included, find the one eyebrow very sexy. I’ve asked a few of my colleagues and friends, and out of 10 only 1 said he doesnt find it unattractive. So it doesn’t seem that this tradition is going anywhere anytime soon.

My first few weeks here I kept being asked how I liked Tajik women. I would respond, they seem nice. At the time in one of the offices I was working was a German woman who I became friends with, and over beer I asked her what she thought Tajik fashion was, because to me it seemed a hodge podge at best.

Her response? “Men in hats, women in tunics and pants, and the monobrow. Everything you need to look good in Tajikistan”. That and a good iron of course.

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Traveling with Purpose

I’ve earlier written about how I feel that those who travel should do so in an informed way. This is still a strong feeling in the way I travel, and I would feel bad if I didn’t at least read the wikipedia page on a country before I left for it.

That being said I would like to make another travel suggestion. Traveling with a purpose. For thousands of years most of our ancestors only traveled for a reason. And the reason wasn’t usually to see a rock turn around and head back.  Today the proliferation of travel options: cruises, adventure tours, or packages of all kinds, make it surprisingly easy to travel without a purpose. This leads to a lack of fulfillment from traveling. Going to see things is great, and I am not going to stop you and tell you this is a bad thing to do, because I strongly encourage it. But you must also intersperse your travels with ones that you do with a purpose.

I am not talking about traveling on purpose. If you travel at all, unless trafficked, you are usually doing so intentionally. No I am talking about traveling for a reason, a good reason.

For some it may be spiritual, the Hajj for example is traveling with purpose for thousands of Muslims every year. There are pilgrimages all over the world that almost every religion has to a variety of different places.

But what if you do not want to travel on the purpose of your religion? That is fine.

For those of us in the West there are hundreds (if not thousands) of organizations which will help you travel on purpose.

Some of the big ones I’d like to suggest:

WWOOFing– World Wide Opportunites on Organic Farms. This is a great organization which sets you up with Organic Farms all over the world (some may even be down the street from you). The Farms provide sleeping and food arrangments, as well as the opportunity to learn about Organic Farms

Peace Corps– Sadly only for US citizens, this is a great organization that can allow you to visit a part of the world for a purpose for many years. Working within communities and seeing these places as those who live there see them.

UN Volunteers– For those outside the US and maybe even inside the US you can also use this site. Its a great organization, sometimes described as the UN version of Peace Corps its kind of a misnomer, but it is a very good way to travel to a part of the world and help those in need in a variety of capacities.

Habitat for Humanity– The organization that started in America is now a truly international organization. Not only can you help build in your own community, you can help other communities from Georgia to Tajikistan, Cambodia to Peru.

Global Service Corps– This one you probably have never heard of, and its younger than all but one of the others but it is a great program as well and offers a lot more variety and choice in your eventual landing spot than some of the others.

Kiva Fellows– Work with and their Microfinance partners to discover more about microfinance on the ground, as well as the country you go to. If you are in Cambodia, Tajikistan, Kenya, Ukraine, or Peru you will have time to explore the country as well as work with many different entrepreneurs.

These aren’t the only organizations you can use, and I dont suggest that they are the best for you. There are literally thousands of organizations you can go through so look around and figure out what it is you want to do.

The best traveling with purpose that I’ve experienced though is the simplest kind. Travel Education. The study abroad programs are on the rise and I am whole heartedly behind this movement as it give students not only a new culture to have to deal with, but doing so in an informed and purposeful way. What more could you ask for? Happy Travels.

(In full disclosure for those who may not know me, I have participated in Kiva Fellows Program and Peace Corps, as well as worked with Habitat for Humanity and the UNDP)

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All you wanted to know about Cotton but were afraid to ask…

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I sounded my Barbaric Yawp ON the roof of the world

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world. – Walt Whitman (LEAVES OF GRASS)

Bulunkul is a small village in an obvious glacier valley resting at 3,700 meters (around 12,100 ft). After about a 30 minuet drive down a road that obviously doesn’t exist when water rushes down from the hills, you will find yourself on the Pamiri highway, which reaches at times around 4,200 meters (almost 14000 feet). But Bulunkul is by itself out in the middle of nowhere by a beautifully large lake. Its 20 to 30 families mainly herd yaks and maybe fish in the lake. As our host pointed out, there isn’t much to do there. But on the fifth day of our trip through the Pamirs this is where Donald and I found ourselves. The coldest place in the Pamirs.

The night we slept there it was only -3 Cent. which I am told is pretty good for this time of year. I tend to believe it, since in the winter it can get as cold as -61 cent. (That’s -77 degrees F.) In the summer though it can get up to 30 degrees (86 F). Walking around the lake I felt deftly alone. It’s an eerily singular place, where life seems to hold on, but not much of it. Even when standing next to someone else, if you are both quiet, you feel utterly alone in the world. At one point, one of us remarked, “This feels like a post-apocalyptic world.”

I couldn’t help but wonder at this lake, so close to the Wakhan Corridor, which seemed so utterly different.

The Wakhan currently is in harvesting season, and for anyone who has never seen an old school harvest, it’s a must see. Framed by the Hindu Kush on one side, and the Pamirs on the other, both sides of the river separate the wheat from the chaff by throwing it up in the air, having donkeys go around in a circle to help separate, large bundles cut and waiting to be worked with, and all the time beautiful sun shine (at least for us).

But it wasn’t until our car turned off the road on our third day and started heading up a mountain that I really began to understand the true population density. We had been earlier to an Afghan market in between Afghanistan and Tajikistan in Ishkishun which happens every Saturday. It let me see people from Afghanistan and even buy one or two things (sadly I did not buy a big fur vest/jacket thing). I had seen the mass of people even at the end of the market, which was originally set up as more of a place for people to talk (as some of the families were separated in the 1940’s when the border was finally solidified). As we drove through the valley villages kept appearing, one after another. Unlike before hand where there would be sometimes hours between villages here one village ended where the next one began, and as we climbed into the hills I could see that these villages also went up. Even at thousands of meters up the side of the mountain you could still find houses and fields that were being worked.

We finally stopped at a fort that rested around 1200 meters above the valley floor. The view was spectacular, and Donald noted that it felt like something from Lord of the Rings. The walls were crumbling slightly, and as we walked up to it along a narrow path we could see that though it was old (from around 100 BC) it was still remarkably well preserved.

To describe the view from this fort is hard, if not impossible, unless one has the enigmatic gift for lucid descriptive writing. I do not, but I can tell you this: I could not take a bad picture in this fort. The sun was beginning its downward descent as it was nearing 3:30 when we got there and spread out to the left and to the right was the Wakhan. You could see the history sitting in front of you as you stood on that hill in the fort. The fort was created by Zoroastrians, the view of both sides showed Ismaili Pamir houses, and you could see soldiers every once in a while which checked the border created in the late 1800’s between the Russians and British, and solidified in 1940’s on the exact placement.

But when I was standing at the lake near Bulunkul you couldn’t see any of that. A few birds floated by as the wind swept across the lake. On the other side from where we stood we could see what looked like two buildings, but we could not tell how old, or who built them, or even why.

We walked up from the beach back into the mountains to a warm spring (it wasn’t hot at all, it was warm) and as my stomach was feeling good for the first time in a few days I sank into a green covered bath tub in the warm spring watching the frogs jump about and played with my growing facial hair.

Our driver was asleep behind the wheel when we got back to the car, his “mujahadeen hat” over his face. Even as we drove back to the little village looking at the Yaks, the only animal that can survive in the cold of winter, it felt immense and lonely on the roof of the world.

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