Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

It was really great to be able to wake up early and watch my nieces and nephews crowd around the Christmas tree and rip the wrap off their gifts to the sound of Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow on the Ipod. It was a snow-less day -- unseasonably warm, actually. Quite nice.

My brother and I took advantage by riding down to a neighbors' farm to check out his buffalo herd -- the kids weren't interested in straying from the house since they had their new Ipods and other electronic goodies.

The herd of buffalo reside about three miles from my parent's home -- and apparently belong to the actor Dan Ackroyd.

Our next stop was a stroll along the streets of Marshall -- reminiscing about the shops that were there when we were kids and how the town has -- in the last few years -- sprung back to life -- with three restaurants, a coffee house, grocery store and several art galleries. Boom town!

As I write this, I am relaxing with my youngest niece and nephew -- they're playing Twister -- in between whacking each other with their new stuffed toys -- I'm vowing not to eat any dinner tonight -- since my mom cooked one of the best Christmas meals I've had in a long time. The corn casserole at lunch was awesome!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Internet....a bit faster!

A couple of days ago I mentioned the slow internet speed at my parent's house. Turns out there was a new option available and my parents decided it was time to get something a bit faster than dial-up. Satellite-delivered internet. It's not real fast, but it is fast-er. The technician arrived in late morning -- working in 20-something degree weather -- that felt even colder because of the wind. By the end of the day though, my mom was making Skype calls and surfing the net from any room in the house with her new wireless connection.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home in the Blue Ridge Mts

I've been traveling a lot these past few weeks with intermittent internet access -- in the United States. It feels a bit odd since one would think the US would have very good internet access, but my parents, for instance, live way out in the country in North Carolina -- and rely on a very slow dial-up connection. I have to drive five miles to a cafe in the town of Marshall to get wi-fi.

It's great to be home to visit with family and friends and re-acquaint myself with those wonderful Blue Ridge Mountains. I've been able to do two hikes since getting back -- both were fantastic and familiar trails. One hike was through a sprinkling of snow and fog -- it was refreshing to feel cold air again -- after heat and humidity in Timor Leste.

The hike was about four or five miles each way from US 25-70 near Hot Springs, NC to the top of Rich Mountain. The view was spectacular -- even through the fog. The sun made its way through the dark clouds -- spreading light across some of the mountain peaks.

I could see all the way into Tennessee from the top of the old fire tower -- whose wooden steps creaked as I climbed up. The temperature, with the wind-chill must have been around zero or even a bit lower. It was truly exhilarating!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Low Tide

Walking the Road

Sunday at the Beach

It was an overcast day in Dili today, but the light made for a nice photo-op just outside town along the beach. The tide was out and the reef was teeming with life and color.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Loss of a friend

I still don't believe it. My friend and colleague Brent Hurd was struck and killed by a bus in Bangalore, India, over the weekend. He had gone to India's third largest city last summer to teach film-making for a year.

Brent was always enthusiastic about what he was working on. In Azerbaijan, where I met him, he had just started work on a film about Sufis. He had traveled all over the country, gathering interviews for his documentary -- and in between times -- he was a broadcast journalism teacher.

He taught our journalism students how to shoot and edit -- how to tell a story with pictures. The students loved him. He loved teaching and it showed in the way he could inspire his students.

I had a chance to speak to Brent just last week -- on a scratchy Skype connection from Bangalore. He told me he was loving his work and had some great students.

Brent, we miss you.

Dili Heat

The fever finally broke today in Dili -- a cloudburst unlike any I have seen in a long while struck in the middle of the afternoon. It was such a welcome relief after sweltering heat and humidity.

It rained so hard that it was almost impossible to hear the person next to me speak. The rain was accompanied by gentle winds - creating a natural air conditioner.

Thunder roared overhead -- shaking the building - flashes of lightning dances among the banyan trees and the flaming trees with their bright orange flowers against their dark green leaves.

I could almost sense the trees and plants breathing a huge sigh of relief and a very long, hot dry spell -- I know I was.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sunday Market

Today's Catch

Timor Leste Independent Film Festival

All the speeches had been made, everyone, including East Timor's president, had gone through the breakfast buffet line and settled into their seats for the six films in the independent film festival here in Dili at the Hotel Timor.

As the screen came to life -- suddenly, the room and the screen were plunged into darkness. Another power cut. It didn't last but a few seconds, but it meant re-setting the projector. The host apologized, but everyone seemed to understand. One person said -- "is this some kind of a joke."

He had no doubt attended what was to have been the screening of the films the previous night, when a power outage forced the hotel to crank up its generator. The generator ran for a few seconds before it blew up.

Fortunately, today's outage, followed by two more, lasted only a few seconds.

All six short films were produced by Timorese film makers -- some of the films were quite good.

The theme of the festival was peace.

One film, titled Dear Mom, told the story of an East Timorese student at the University of Hawaii, writing a letter to her mom back home as her country was exploding into violence in 2006. Another focused on the "peace" graffiti around Dili -- and included interviews with residents about what peace means to them.

I had to leave the film festival before the final film was shown. As I walked toward the back of the hall, the lights went out again and the screen went blank.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Of Rats and Man

I'm temporarily staying in a hotel until my apartment is ready and as I was sitting at my computer the other evening, I caught sight of something black and furry out of the corner of my eye. A few seconds later, it reappeared from behind a large vase in the room -- a fuzzy black mouse. A short time later, I spotted another one as it scampered under my bed.

The next morning, I notified the maid and she nodded that she understood and would take care of the problem.

There'd been a huge gap between the bottom of the hotel room door and the floor, but now, someone had nailed a piece of rubber to the bottom of the door. No more mice.

Tonight, as I sat at a table across from the hotel's outdoor bar -- sipping a beer and talking to a friend -- I saw a huge rat run along the floor in front of the bar. A huge Australian guy was standing at the bar -- talking to the female bartender -- when suddenly the rat started moving toward the guy. My friend and I watch as the rat climbs on the top of the guy's sandals and sits there for maybe 10 seconds -- before running under a huge planter. The guy at the bar didn't even notice. The rat was half the size of a cat.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fishing at Low Tide

I'm living in Hotel Dili for the next week or so and often wander across the street where a short walk through the trees takes you to this view. Fishermen are out early with their nets and boats. Fishing, as an industry, is virtually non-existent -- which makes for lots and lots of fish. The land mass in the background is Atauro -- an island that also belongs to Timor Leste.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Horse Power on the Sea

The young man rode his horse out into the water -- just off Dili. Moments after he passed the boat, he jumped from the horse and let the horse pull him through the water. He held onto the tail and the reins.

The horse seemed to enjoy it. Just before coming to shore, the rider bathed the horse's face with water. The horse was rather reluctant to leave the water.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Loy Krathong (To Float the Raft)

Loy Krathong is originally a Hindu holiday, but taken over by the Buddhists. It's about renewal -- removing the things you don't like about yourself and sending them out to sea. In this photo taken near Dili, Timor Leste several dozen people have launched candle-lit rafts -- made of the trunk of banana trees. Loy Krathong is held on the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar this usually falls in November.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

East Timor (Timor Leste) - First Impressions

As the Silk Air flight from Singapore touched down in Dili, East Timor, the Timorese on board applauded and cheered. The plane began to brake almost immediately and rolled down the short runway and made a U-turn -- and headed for the tiny airport. A sign aboard the covered outdoor walkway said "arrivals."

Standing in the humid air, a young Asian couple was just ahead of me and suddenly the young man went into convulsions. I had never seen anyone go into an epileptic seizure, but I am currently reading Oliver Sacks' book Musicofilia -- which deals, in part, with the brain, music and epilepsy. So, my first thought was this was a seizure -- he immediately began to fall toward me -- as the convulsions continued. I broke his fall and his sister helped make him as comfortable as possible. Blood began to ooze from his mouth and he began to turn blue. I shouted for a doctor and fortunately there'd been one on the flight and was standing ahead of us in line and he came over to help. After some time, the young man was able to stand up and was taken to a local clinic. His sister told me he was going to be ok.

These were my first minutes in Dili.

As we made our way to the office, there were fruit sellers along the road -- some walked with baskets dangling from their sides -- baskets full of freshly picked mangoes. Mango season has just begun. Banana trees grow everywhere -- as do coconuts.

There are still signs of what the anti-independence militias did in 1999 -- after East Timor citizens voted for independence from Indonesia. There are burned out and abandoned buildings in Dili. I saw several on my way from the airport.

Most of the people in Timor Leste speak Tetum -- one of 16 indigenous languages -- Portuguese, the other official language, is spoken mainly by the ruling elite.

Some four hours after my arrival in Timor, I feasted with my friends on the beach -- fish, grilled shrimp, spicy salads, potatoes and carrots -- and orange-and-mango juice -- and we were treated to an amazing sunset -- brilliant reds, purples, oranges filled the evening sky -- and reflected onto the water in the bay.

I think I'm gonna like this place!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Truth to be Silenced?

The Azerbaijani government has decided to kick Radio Liberty and BBC off the airwaves beginning next year. The government says it wants to restrict local broadcasts of international media.

This is a very bad decision.

Radio Liberty and BBC are the only two stations in the country that provide high quality news and information to the people of Azerbaijan. More importantly, these two radio stations are not afraid to speak out about issues -- including corruption and bribery -- issues that would never see the light of day, otherwise, simply because all other stations are either state-owned or too afraid to speak out.

Since I've been in Azerbaijan, dozens of people have told me that the only place that they can get real news that is not tainted by self-censorship or government intimidation is on these two stations.

Personally, I have worked closely with Radio Liberty and have provided news programs to them on a variety of issues -- the government's lack of attention to Internally Displaced Persons, corruption at various levels of government, poor health care and a host of other issues. Radio Liberty did not hesitate to broadcast this material. In fact, it was often the only broadcaster who was willing to do so.

The entire country suffers if Radio Liberty and the BBC are silenced in Azerbaijan. They are the only places to turn -- when citizens want to hear something other than "happy news."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

One Way - The Wrong Way

Traffic is a royal pain in Baku and when the president decides to go somewhere, the traffic situation gets even worse. That's what happened yesterday. All the main streets were blocked for more than one hour -- forcing drivers to make long detours through very narrow streets.

We need to go about seven blocks, but had to make one of those long detours. The driver, Heydar, decided to make the long detour a bit shorter. He pushes down the accelerator on his Mercedes and turns left onto a one way street -- there were three problems: we were going the wrong way, the street was incredibly narrow and the line of cars in front of us stretched on forever.

Heydar laid down on his car horn and proceeded down the street. Not a single driver seemed to think it was out of the ordinary -- they just moved over as much as they could -- and we squeezed by.

After three blocks or so, we finally got off the one-way street, but had to take another one -- and this one went right past the police station. The cops didn't even notice -- we just drove right by them -- they continued talking.

As Heydar explained, drivers feel forced to break the law since there are so many cars and so few streets and alternative routes -- particularly when the president decides to close the streets.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Election Day in Azerbaijan

It's election day in Azerbaijan. The day the country re-elects its president Ilham Aliyev. I wandered into a polling place near my office. It was a beehive of activity. My colleagues and I were welcomed -- we met the election officials and the director of the school where the voting was taking place.

There were voters of all ages in the polling station -- including a 90-year old man.

The process looks similar to a US election -- minus the gauntlet of posters and campaigners outside the polling place. The only difference -- and it's a big one -- is that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The voter shows their identity card -- is issued a ballot -- steps into a curtained booth -- checks off the person they are supporting and then places the ballot in a clear plastic, Tupperware looking -- container.

The election officials asked if we were observers and we said no, but they asked who we were and wrote down the name of our organization. They were extremely friendly to us and to those voting. They were even polite, but firm with a man who wandered in -- reeking of alcohol. As he stumbled toward the registration desk -- he was ushered back out the front door. Perhaps he was told to sober up and come back later.

As voters exit, a local NGO conducts an exit poll of every three voters. The pollsters happily showed us the results so far -- 19 votes for Mr. Aliyev and 1 vote for an opposition candidate.

The only real question is by what margin Mr. Aliyev will win this election. In the days leading up to it, his picture has been pasted on most shop windows -- he's gotten tremendous attention on television -- where he has cut numerous ribbons around the country -- opening new schools, new offices, new roads and new airports.

His opponents, on the other hand, have had very little air time on television and radio. So little, in fact, that many people don't even know the names of the other candidates.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight" - Orhan Pamuk

Monday, October 13, 2008

Making Bread -- Azeri Style

My neighborhood breadmaker has absolutely spoiled me. I guess you could say it started in Tajikistan, when I would go to the local bread maker and he'd hand me piping hot bread through the little window of his shop. It was so hot, I had to wear gloves. He didn't provide a bag.

Azeri bread is just as good. These breads have amazing flavor -- it's probably the way breads in the United States used to taste -- when everything was baked locally without preservatives.

The breads are baked in a hot tandoor oven -- as you can see from the photos -- the bread is slapped on the sides of the wall of the oven and is done in less than five minutes.

If I make it home before finishing off the loaf -- I often put cheese and tomatoes inside -- close it up and savor the flavor!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Post-War Georgia

I was in Georgia last week, some four weeks after what the Georgians are calling the Russian War. I traveled to Gori -- the hardest hit of Georgian cities and found little evidence that the Russians had been there. The Georgians have moved quickly to repair the damage -- particularly to the old Soviet apartment buildings that were hit by Russian artillery. I did see a store front window with a large bullet hole in it, but otherwise, few obvious physical signs that the Russians had been there.

The locals told me that the Russians looted the computers in the banks and that the contents of Stalin Museum, located in Gori along with his home, had been carted off to Tbilisi for safe-keeping. Everything was back in place at the museum by the time I arrived -- including Stalin's eery death mask -- which had to be viewed by candlelight since the electricity was off. (Not related to the war.)

In the countryside, there was more physical evidence of the Russian presence. Oddly, the Russians had burned whole mountainsides of forests. Local people told me that helicopters hovered over the mountains and dropped firebombs onto mountainsides. They said some 3000 acres of forests had been burned. The mountainsides were charred black. It seems illogical to burn the mountains, but several locals told me the Russians did it because they could -- and wanted to show their power and superiority. One local trail guide in Borjomi National Park said simply -- "the Russians are cruel."

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili continues to have the support of his people, but there are those who are beginning to question whether his moves against the Russians were a wise move. As one person told me, South Ossetians had begun to talk about rejoining Georgia before the war, but she says she now doubts that will happen any time soon.

There have been no protests agains Saakashvili since the war. Those I spoke with felt that would simply play into the hands of the Russian Government -- which has called the Georgian leader a "corpse."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Waterfront - Baku

All Night Cola on Fountain Square - Baku

Facebook Follies

A friend sort of broke up with her boyfriend after he hacked into her Facebook account and deleted it. He was angry that she had men friends and he'd just moved to another country and apparently felt threatened. She decided to test his loyalty.

My colleague created another Facebook account, used a different name and found some photos of an attractive woman -- using those photos for her profile and photo album. Next, she invited him to be her friend.

He took the bait.

Over the next few days, he proceeded to tell "her" all about herself -- not realizing he was chatting with his old girlfriend. She let it ride for a few days til the other day when he informed her that he'd found the girl of his dreams. She was furious and wound up telling him that the girl of his dreams was actually her -- his old girlfriend.

I expect this story will have a happy ending once the storm blows over.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Take Out the Garbage

One of my students is doing a story about garbage. Many places in Baku have regular garbage pickups, but many don't. It's those places that this young reporter is focusing on. She's been to a bunch of garbage piles in the last two weeks, talking with those living near these rubbish heaps as well as health officials and others -- including an official with the sanitation department.

My student told me that the interview with the official went really well, but then at the end, he tried to slip her the equivalent of 25 US dollars if she would forget about the story. As she described this incident to me, I could see and feel her surprise in her voice. She had never experienced anything like this before. She refused the money and told him "you should be ashamed." Her story should be finished next week. We hope to get it on the air -- at least on the web. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Banana-less Split

I was surprised last week when I happened to see that my favorite Indian restaurant had a banana split on the menu. I ordered one. It came in a long slender dish with three scoops of ice cream, finely crushed nuts, chocolate syrup, a cherry on top -- and fried bananas along the edge. It was absolutely delicious and I vowed to order another one the next time I visited.

Last evening, I returned with three friends and at the end of the meal, three of us ordered the banana split. We were excited about the fried bananas and one of my friends described how she had attempted to fry bananas once -- but she wound up with a severely burned banana and a room full of smoke. I assured her that this place knows how to fry bananas.

A few minutes later, the waiter brings out the desserts -- each of us looks down at our dishes and are amazed that there are no bananas. Everything else is there, but no bananas in the banana split.

I reminded the waiter that we ordered banana splits. He replied "this is the banana split." But where is the banana? "It's there," he replied. But where? "This is a banana split," he said. Ok, we were going in circles. Finally, he said in a very serious voice: "This is our NEW banana split."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Streets of Baku

I just walked two blocks from my office to an ATM machine and was nearly hit by a car and was almost assaulted by a two-by-four falling from scaffolding -- and then there's the dust as thick as fog flying in the air.

Today's walk is typical in Baku. It's impossible to use the sidewalks because cars either park on them or scaffolding is set up on them to sand-blast all the buildings. The government has decided to sand-blast virtually ever building in central Baku as part of a beautification project.

It means walking in the streets -- as close to the edge of the street as possible so as not to get hit by a speeding car, but also steering clear of the scaffolding -- where things regularly drop from the upper reaches onto the sidewalk below.

It's quite the obstacle course and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight.

To make the situation even worse, many of the city parks are closed for renovations. So there is no place to go to escape. As part of its renovations, the city has erected high fences around the city parks and has even enclosed the sidewalks -- which means pedestrians must walk in the street -- with the fence on one side and a speeding Mercedes or SUV on the other.

Oh, and I forgot about the horns. People love to individualize their car horns and motorists use any opportunity to show them off.

It makes for a constant noise as you dodge the cars and scaffolding. And don't forget to hold your breath -- to avoid the sand-blasting.

I'm an optimist, by holding my breath, I'm increasing my lung capacity.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Too Salty and Paying For Your Phone Bill

I ate at my favorite little cafe the other day and ordered the Summer Salad. It's usually tasty, but on this particular day it tasted like someone had poured a whole shaker of salt into the bowl. As I was taking a bite, I noticed the waiter stopped to watch my expression. I called him over and told him about the salt. He said "yeah, people have been complaining all day about too much salt." I guess the word never got back to the kitchen.

Even the Phone Bill Statement Costs Money

It came time to pay the phone bill the other day and it amounted to almost 200 US dollars, so I asked the cashier for a list of all the calls. "Not a problem, but it will cost you six bucks," she replied. It's the first time I've ever had to pay for a phone bill statement.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's so humid........

Baku has been sweltering these past few days, but I have never encountered a situation like today. I walked out of a restaurant and my glasses fogged over the moment I stepped into the humidity. The restaurant didn't seem exceptionally cold, so I assume it must have been the high humidity.

A colleague glanced at his watch and noticed it had fogged over in the humidity.

I thought I had experienced the ultimate humidity having spent 20 years in Washington, DC, the home of humidity. Today's fogging occurred about 9pm -- when the humidity normally begins to ease up a bit.

It reminds me of the time, years ago, when I was on a DC bus on a sweltering summer day. The AC wasn't working and the bus was packed. There was a large elderly woman sitting near where I was standing -- suddenly she said to everyone and no-one: "it's so hot, my corns are poppin'!" For a second, everyone forgot about the heat.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fly Over

Emotional Journalism

A colleague of mine, who happens to be Azeri, was very upset that he didn't receive a grant from an organization. He came to me and said he was going to write a story about how the winner of the grant didn't deserve it and how the organization providing the grant was not jurying the process fairly. It was going to be a very emotional piece. He called it a story, but it was going to be an opinion piece masquerading as an investigative story. He was going to write it that afternoon. I convinced him to leave it alone -- afterall -- he would probably be applying for another grant from this organization sometime in the future.

It wasn't my first encounter with emotional journalism. In fact, I too, have been on the receiving end of emotional journalism -- when a group of journalists didn't receive a small grant from me that they thought they deserved.

Emotional journalism is practiced widely and I've noticed it a lot during my time in the former Soviet republics. Journalists, and sometimes those who think they are journalists, sometimes use this technique for intimidation.

One part-time journalist told me recently that when he didn't get the kind of answers that he wanted from people, he'd just start shouting at them. "They give me answers then because they know that I will write something bad about them, otherwise." It doesn't always work, the last time he tried his shouting technique, they told him to write a letter to the company and they'd get back to him in about two weeks. He went back the next day, apologized and got the interview.

Emotional journalism can be dangerous, too. It can send journalists to prison in societies where libel and defamation are part of the criminal code. In Tajikistan, last year, three young women, who'd just turned 20, faced two years in prison for making up a story about a Tajik singer and publishing it on the internet. The Tajik government had just passed a law that made it a criminal offense to libel someone on the internet.

Emotional journalism is obviously not good for journalists, particularly those trying to practice international standards.

It is a way for governments to say "see, this is how all journalists are."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

City of Dust

Dust in the Wind

Baku means city of wind, but a more precise description would be city of dust. I live across the street from a building that is being renovated -- I can handle the noise. It's the sand blasting that is killing me. Fine particles wind up on everything -- including my laptop screen. When stepping outside, it's in your face -- like a thick fog that pelts your skin.

The whole city seems to be undergoing a face lift this summer.


I've been following the events in Georgia via the internet and through my friends and colleagues who live and work there. A Georgian friend sent me this email on Friday. It is impossible to confirm these descriptions. Here is an excerpt:

"We have already 100,000 refugees and numerous victims, nobody knows the correct number, but as we know right now Russians are raping women, abusing and killing children and old people, hiding themselves in the cellars or in the forests of villages ,nearby Gori, all around of central Georgia!
Nothing is left without robbing and looting and if they can't carry it with them then they are ruining everything! I
do believe that still there are still people left in Europe valuing dignity and relationship rather than the price of oil."

There is no way to confirm some of this material, but I wanted to share it with those reading this blog. As many of you may know, she is referring to the oil pipeline that cuts through Georgia -- originating in Azerbaijan. The pipeline provides oil and natural gas for the west.