Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reflections on the Semester and Happy Holidays

Comrades,

It has been a while. I'm sure many of you thought this blog was defunct. I just don't have anything blog-worthy to write about as an MA student and young professional in DC. I'm always writing, of course, mostly for academia.

But there have been many a time when I felt the need to post about the post-Fulbright, reintegration process. Now that the semester is over, I now have time to do so.

No one talks about the challenge of reintegration after an extended overseas research trip. Not to whine, but it sucks. I am not complaining and everyone goes through this, so I am absolutely not unique in this respect. And I would not have changed my work experience overseas for the world. Best year of my (albeit very young) life. But I figured it is worth updating the blog and fleshing through the challenges of reintegration, especially when you are returning from a region you spend 99% of your time thinking about.

There are trivial aspects to reintegration. It took me a good month to learn what Uber is. I'm still wrapping my mind around the concept to be honest. It is basically a formalized system of gypsy cabs. Overseas, I would get in any random gypsy cab just by standing near the side of the road. I would negotiate my rate in Russian and/or Kazakh and sometimes the cab driver would pick up multiple people along the way. Here, you order a cab ahead of time, pay with a credit card, and have exclusive service. Of course, this is more expensive, but you can be sure that you will get to your destination safely. The costs of formalization and modernization...

But Uber and pop-culture facts aside, it is the challenges of realigning different value systems, social practices, expectations and material cultures that is hard. Also, keeping in touch with my coworkers from the bazaar -- especially those who do not have a computer and rely on their cell phones. Fortunately, whatsapp has helped with that, so I am able to keep in touch with my Tajik and Kazakh brothers from the bazaar. I also call my boss from Baraholka at least once a month. So it's been fun to hear about how the market has changed -- one of my bratishkas took my place as the salesperson for my boss. My buddy moved locations and started renting a container in a different bazaar. Some went home to Tajikistan. Two of my bratishkas were able to acquire passports for their wives to join them in Almaty.  For a while, some would call my US cell phone at 3 in the morning (DC time), not realizing that there is a 10 (now 11) hour time difference between us. It is nice to keep in touch with "the family." And keeps me in touch with that hilarious, and fantastic Central Asian culture, that I miss oh so much.

Just the other day, I received a "Whats App" message from G. G is an older lady who sold men's shoes in one of the three containers my boss owned. She sent me a mass text message that you are supposed to forward to others as a sign of good luck. As seen in the image below, G (white text box) sends me the message with a bunch of $$. I respond (green text box): G! Hi! How are you? I'm thrilled, that you wrote to me. G responds (white box): Hello! Everything is good with us. How are you? When are you getting married?

G, you're great. Never change.



And yet, I cannot help but feel guilty. My bratishkis ask when I'm coming back, and I have no idea. Now that I only have one semester left of my MA and am ending the "student phase" of life (finally), my travel opportunities are few and far between. I of course hope to stay involved in the region, but I am realistic enough to realize that I may not be able to do so in the immediate future. When I think back to what I was doing this time last year, I recall the pre-holiday sales rush of people shopping for gifts. I read over my field notes from December 2013 and one anecdote stood out. We had a mother and daughter (ages 60 and 40 maybe) come into the container to buy new shoes for the holiday. They went to the final sales bin and picked out a pair of matching, dermantin, short-heel booties. They usually cost 3,000 tenge final sale, but it was a slow day, so we negotiated two pairs for 4,000 tenge total. They paid 4,000 tenge in one plastic bag with 50 tenge coins (at the time, that was $19.48, but according to today's exchange rate, that is $21). I sat and counted out all of the coins. This was literally all they could afford. And so, when I read the stories about the dollar-ruble exchange rate, and in the Kazakhstani press about a potential devaluation, I have a different take on this issue than most people in the Central Asian business, political, diplomatic and academic community. I find that I mostly agree with economists on these sorts of issues. I guess you could say the issues are more personal. I remember when I went to the bazaar the day of the February 2014 tenge devaluation. The effects of that were felt for a while. But I digress. My point is that I know the value of a tenge to a large chunk of the population, and what a difference any sort of devaluation can make. This is especially important for the traders, pension recipients and people in the informal economy who do not have formally written contracts with the bazaar administrations and are therefore subject to random price charges (gosarenda is once again increasing this year).

With that said, I am disgusted when I read comments on Twitter expressing schadenfreude about the collapse of the Russian economy. That's just mean. Real people suffer. I don't consider myself a humanitarian, but inflating the already-tense political situation with malicious rhetoric and passive aggressive comments just fuels the fire and makes Russians that much more unwilling to engage in a constructive, transparent dialogue with the U.S.

My interactions in the bazaar and exposure to people who really have so little made me appreciate what I have a lot more. That sounds corny. But when I hear people complain about waiting 5 minutes for a bus in DC, or an Uber driver that is 3 minutes late, I really have no patience. I waited 20 minutes for a bus in Almaty. And it was no big deal.

What tears at me the most is when I read the news of events in Kazakhstan and Russia, and how I am so far away -- unable to talk to my friends and networks and get a real sense of the events on the ground. This is particularly true with respect to local politics and the fate of the country's bazaars. There was another bazaar fire in September and I recalled the fires I experienced when I was there. November 17 was the one-year anniversary of the fire in Gloria and Kulager, so thinking back on that, and comparing my experiences and the news coverage is an enlightening exercise.

I guess it is most challenging to try to explain my experiences in the professional and academic realm. I was a TA for a course, "Government and Politics of the Former Soviet Union"  at Georgetown this semester and my professor gave me wonderful free reign to re-do the Central Asia unit. It was a nice challenge to teach Central Asia as a political scientist, drawing from published works and my own analysis, and in the context of Russia and Ukraine's respective political evolutions since 1991. This was a healthy and fun experience. Though, I must say, walking onto Georgetown's campus the first day of class and witnessing a mass of smiling, laughing, Vineyard vines-clad students was overwhelming. I called one of the other Fulbrighters for a good "holy sh-t, we are in America," vent session.

Returning to Georgetown was great in that I know the campus, professors and my program. But my graduate cohort and undergraduate classmates graduated so it was weird being on the same campus but without the people who I usually associate with Georgetown. Of course, getting back into student mode was not my favorite thing, but that was a fairly easy transition. I know the expectations. What was hard, though, was getting back into "DC mode" as a young professional. I've been off the grid doing my thing overseas for the past year, so returning to the DC network and also coping with DC egos, was an experience.

I am also able to stay in the loop with the DC-area Central Asia business, political and diplomatic community. Perhaps this is the inner historian/anthropologist in me, but it is fascinating to compare the behavioral and thematic discourses on identical topics between elites in the host nation and overseas (I use the word "elite" not in a pejorative way, but rather as a political science term -- diplomats are elites). And it is always fascinating to compare my experiences with those of others who have served in Kazakhstan and/or Russia as a researcher, businessman or government employee. There are some things I find to be way off (perception versus reality) and some things are spot on.

I will refrain from going into too much detail, but the main conclusions I can draw from all of this, is that it is important to question the news. Inquire as to the source of the media, who is writing it, and what are their motivations. Also, use facts. Data-driven analysis and policies are the most effective. Do not fall into the habit of using generalized tropes or political jargon.

Granted, I have no authority to "preach," and everything I'm saying is applicable to the US. But especially when it comes to judging other cultures and in light of current U.S.-Russia relations, I would like people to please keep in mind that not all Russians are bad. One of my objectives in starting this blog is to show that people are people. Russians and Americans need to calm down the rhetoric. I know the arguments used by both sides and there are clear communication issues and some disagreements. But relations did not have to deteriorate as quickly and as destructively as they did.

For researchers -- all I can say is that there is a reintegration process. It differs for each person, but it is there. Before your trip, the grant-giving organization tells you to bring back aspects of the overseas culture with you to America. While this is true on a personal note, communicating your experiences and, more importantly, key lessons and themes from your time overseas, is not so easy.

All of that aside, when I'm not TAing, working, studying, or skyping with my bratishkas, I spend my "free time" working on my academic publications based on my Fulbright research. This had to take a back seat during the second half of the semester, but I'm looking forward to wrapping things up over break (hopefully). I will spare you the details of the trials of academic publishing. All I can say is that I am glad I grew up an athlete and have a thick skin.

I celebrated the past two New Years Holidays in Kazakhstan (2013 and 2014). So this is the first time in two years I am stateside for the holiday. As an ode to the FSU, I will be watching the film Ирония судьбы on TV, but will miss the Presidential New Years address. I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and a happy hanukkah!




Monday, July 21, 2014

The Beginning of the End

Comrades,

I officially have eight days left in-country. Oh the time has flown by. While I am sad to leave a place I have called home for the last ten months, I am ready to return to life in America and my last year of grad school. I will so dearly miss all of my coworkers in the bazaar, my friends, Baraholka (yes, I will miss it), and all the craziness and unpredictability that goes along with living and researching in Almaty. I view life overseas as an ongoing SNL improv skit, and all of my acquaintances are character actors. So, as I reflect on the past ten months, I shall write a Julia Ioffe-inspired post on what I will miss and not miss about living in Almaty. As always, these are my opinions, and they do not reflect the experiences or beliefs of any other person or organization.

I will miss my Soviet-era, one bedroom apartment (built in 1982) that has recurring electricity outages and no air conditioning, which makes sleeping in 94 degree F weather quite unpleasant. I will miss looking outside my window onto the construction site where Uzbek migrants work and live. I will miss the 70-year old retired Russian who every morning squats outside the building door, smoking a cigarette, drinking water or kvass from a plastic bottle, wearing nothing but his bathrobe. I will also miss him doing the same thing in the afternoon, and in the evening -- "guarding" my building. I will also miss the retired grandpas who play chess, betting 2,000 tenge a piece, at the Dungan lakhman cafe in my building. And I will miss the old, Russian guy who strides at a glacial pace, like old people do, as he visits that same Dungan lakhman cafe every afternoon for a 100-tenge, 50-ml shot of vodka, followed by a cigarette during the walk back to his apartment. The waitresses all of his order memorized.

I will mis the affordable and quality fruits and vegetables imported from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Almaty suburbs. I will miss Dungan food. I will miss bottles of vodka that cost all of $3. I will not miss the Nescafe coffee and having to explain what a gluten allergy is all of the time.

I will miss being called the following names: Denochka, Devochka (girl), Krasavitza (beauty...very complimentary), and Kavkazka (a Caucasian girl...less so complimentary, but a reference to the fact that I look like I'm from the Caucuses). I will not miss being asked what my nationality is and responding that I am an American, only to receive the follow up response that American is not a nationality. I then say I am a Evreika (Jew), and the response is "aaa ponyatno, vyi pokhoj na chistakrovnuyu evreiku," or in English, "Aa, understood, you resemble a pure-blood Jew." (The back story to this is that during the Soviet Union, everyone was classified as a nationality, and the Jews were one of them. An individual's nationality written on the fifth line of their passport. So identifying myself as a Jew makes sense to them.)

I will so dearly miss Arasan banya. I will miss the smell of varenki in the Russian sauna. So much.

I will not miss the random Passport/document checks.

I will miss Baraholka bazaar. I will miss the chaos, and energy of the traders. I will miss lounging in the stall and interacting with customers. I will miss 14 year old girls and their mothers debating the proper high heel height, much like I did with my mom at that age. I will miss receiving people's reactions to the fact that their saleswoman is an American, and not a Turk or Azerbaijani.

I will not miss the porter potties in Baraholka. I will not miss the lack of trashcans and the sunflower seeds on the street. I will not miss working in the bazaar -- freezing when it is -30 C and sweating like I'm in a banya when it is +40 C weather. I will not miss the crowded aisles and pushing. I will not miss the 40-minute bus ride.

I will miss all of the traders in the bazaar. And I'll miss my local, corner "produktyi" store, and the two Kazakh ladies who run it. But most of all the bazaar.

I will miss the older-Kazakh guy who is a belts and socks wholesale trader in the stall next to me, who always tells me I should marry his son and live in Kazakhstan forever.

I will so, so, so dearly miss my boss in Baraholka. I will miss him ending every sentence with "Denochka." I will miss him making side comments on other traders and customers. I will miss him leaving me in charge to trade as he goes to get new goods and take care of business for an hour or so. I will miss him explaining to me where things are located in the container, the sizes available, and the prices. I will miss opening new boxes of shoes and admiring the models as we put them out on the display shelf. I will miss drinking tea with him in the winter, and eating cherries, putting the pits in an empty shoebox, in the summer.

I will miss Ke, who, like my boss, is originally from Osh, but now has a wife and daughter in Bishkek. Every Sunday night, he goes home to Bishkek to see his family. I miss exchanging my extra som (Kyrgyz currency) with him after my travels. I also will miss his lingo of "privyetochka" and "salemochka" (basically adding an extra "-ochka" to a standard greeting).

I will miss the pregnant Kazakh gal from Shymkent who sells children's clothing next to me. I will miss her calm demeanor amongst the chaos of Baraholka. I'll also miss De, who sells children shoes next to the Kazakh guy who sells belts.

I will miss my coworkers in my bosses containers. I will miss Ed, who is an ethnic Korean born and raised in Dushanbe, and his wife, Gan, who is from Taldikorgan. I will miss Ed coming to me and asking to verify a shoe size due to his poor eye site, as he held a cigarette in between his lips, and at times, wreaked of vodka. I will never forget the time I was working in the bazaar while my boss was getting new goods, and the okhraniki came by and were giving me a hard time, so Ed came by to sweet talk and help me. I will miss Gan's no nonsense tone. I very much respect them. They both came from nothing, and while they are unable to work outside of the bazaar, they have used their money to put their kids through school. Their son graduated from KIMEP and just secured a job at a US big-four company in Almaty. They even asked me to give their daughter English lessons -- but I don't have time.

I will miss my Russian coworker, S, who used to drive me to and from work until he moved. I will miss S explaining to me the local gossip and how things in the bazaar worked. I'll also miss his "vents" on marriage and kids, like the time his wife asked him to buy pantyliners, and he couldn't figure out which model to purchase. S was also my source of slang. I have an entire document on my iPhone dedicated to all of the Russian curse words and slang expressions, and 90% of the contributions this year came from S. When I had an issue with my landlord attempting to hike up the rent after devaluation, I discussed my negotiating strategy with S. I will miss the really local advise he gave me.

I will miss the Tajik migrants. Oh there are so many to list. I will just name a few. To protect them, I'll shorten their names to one or two letters.

I will miss Ne, who works in our third container, and his "brother" who sells men's shoes there too. I will miss chatting with Ne when there are no clients about everything from life in America, life here, health issues, etc. I will miss relying on him to find me a model when I don't know where it is. Ne is 27 and just got married in February, which is late by local standards. He went back home to Kurgan-Tobe and had an arranged marriage -- which is quite common. He had refused to get married earlier and expressed his support for the "American way" of getting married later, and only having one wife. I remember one time when we were chatting with another Tajik, who also said that it is better to get married later and to have fun while young. I asked if he wanted a second wife and he said, "no, one wife is enough." Ha. Ne responded that his wife was ignoring his calls and intentionally not answering the phone, because the previous week he ran out of money on his cell phone, and had to wait until he had enough cash on hand to put money on it and call her. Fortunately, a week later, she forgave him, and now he is conscious of not letting his phone balance go down to zero.

I will miss Az, who always calls me after I am not in the bazaar for a day, or two, or a week, and asks where I am and if my health is ok. I will miss him telling me how he has two wives, one here, and one in Taj. The wife here works and corresponds with the wife at home, and her work is a major financial relief for the family when the sales season is slow. He approached me to help one Taj, who is his "adopted" son. This Taj, Mo, is 18, and was born and raised in Dushanbe. Mo's father paid for Mo to have private English lessons. When there were no jobs after graduating school, and university was not an option, Mo came to Baraholka to work. Az came to me and asked for me to practice English with Mo every day because Az worried that Mo would forget it. So every morning, when I come in, I ask Mo how is the weather, how are his sales, etc. And honestly, Mo is not half bad. His English is decent. For various reasons, he was unable to enter university. Az later asked me how he can send Mo overseas to America to study. I showed them some programs and explained the application process. Even though it is unlikely Mo will ever be able to make it to America, I was so touched by Az's desire and serious intention to preserve Mo's level of English and use me as a resource for his education.

I'll miss A, who is a lanky 19-year old whose mother died of cancer when he was 5 and father passed a few years later, leaving him to grow up with his brothers and other relatives. "A" came to Almaty three years ago to start working in the bazaar. He was selling men's shoes across from me and would always come into our container to try to sell to women's shoes whenever an attractive young girl came in. When a girl and her mother came in, he would always offer if they needed a security guard. He would always mention a ridiculously high price, and surprisingly enough, managed to sell it. My boss would give him a cut of the profits. I will not forget the time when he hit on a pregnant woman at the bazaar with her husband looking for a comfy shoe. When A kept on proposing heels, the husband eventually exclaimed "do you not understand, she is pregnant, and cannot wear heels," at which point A backed down out of fear. He explained to me that he thinks that when women are there with their boyfriends, the boyfriends/husbands will buy heels for a higher price. In reality, though, from my experience, the male figure usually takes the lead in bargaining. I will also miss how A likes to impress girls and will say to me from across the aisle, as if he is my boss, "give it for a good price," and when he comes in and tells a girl that we have a certain size of a model, even though I know the inventory, and know 110% that we do not have that size.

I will miss my Tajik friend, K, and his father, KF,  two containers down from me who moved to Almaty in the 1990s during the civil war. They used to own two containers, but now own one after suffering a bad season this winter. I will miss chatting with K during the times when there were no customers. K always asked me about getting loans in America, school and education, the differences between life here and there. At one point his father went back to Taj for a bit and K and I were both in Almaty alone -- so in a way, we could vent to each other about being away from home by ourselves for a while. And KF's father  is one of the sweetest people ever. He is in his 50s/60s, and during the Soviet Union, worked in agricultural sales in the auls in Tajikistan. He spent all of his life working in sales and the bazaar. I remember one time I was chatting with them when another trader walked in and shook hands with them. While it is unconventional for a Muslim, Tajik male to shake hands with a woman, most do with me. But this trader refused to shake my hand as it is not proper according to Muslim law. Fine, I was not offended. I understood, as I have Jewish acquaintances who do not shake hands with women. After the trader refused my hand, KF turned to me and explained the thinking -- that any contact with a woman can be interpreted as sexual. He said that sort of thinking was stupid, and what is important is what you think in your heart when you shake someone's hand. If someone has a good heart and is a good person, then they won't be thinking those bad things.

I will miss my local vegetable guy, M, also a Tajik, who always asks about my work, and health.

I will miss the loads of other Tajiks who practice the few words of English they know with me. I will miss their innocent and at times, ridiculous, questions. I welcomed the opportunity to interact with them and explain American culture. This is a demographic that rarely gets the opportunity to talk to an American, and I was happy to take on the role of an "unofficial Ambassador" as a Fulbright scholar.

I will not miss their crazy conspiracy theories told me on global events. And I absolutely will not miss their highly inappropriate sexual and crude comments (not all of them, but a handful). In fact, I really look forward to escaping this aspect.

I will not miss how I am perceived as a woman. I will not miss being asked the following questions, by men and women: Are you married? How old are you? You're 23, why are you not already married? Why are you studying? Why don't you stop studying and just get married and have children, and let your husband provide for you? How many children do you have? (I wear a wedding ring, so I get this question a lot...I intentionally wear a ring for security reasons when I am on the bus, traveling, etc.) How many children do you want to have?

I will not miss my opinions as a woman being diminished by others, and when I say that I plan to work after graduation and the response is, "no, you will accept Islam, wear a veil, move to Tajikistan and be my wife." While this is a joke, and I have a good enough relationship with traders to joke about these things and say "absolutely not," and "to each their own...everyone has their own culture and beliefs and we can all respect each other," on a more fundamental level, I think that this view is quite common in South and Central Asia. This is a fairly traditional view, and that is fine. Again, to each their own. I am not making a value judgment and saying this perspective is wrong, or bad, but rather, there is no acceptance of any alternative lifestyle, and the idea of "live and let live." Moreover, this view is important for international NGOs and women's rights organizations to keep in mind. Gender empowerment is not about the women, it is about the men. So long as the predominant mindset keeps women as uneducated, housewives whose decision-making power is surrendered to their male husbands, gender empowerment will not occur.

I will miss my friends outside of the bazaar, who are mostly well-educated, working young professionals. I respect and admire their tenacity, optimism (and pessimism) and practicality. It is this group of people that makes me optimistic for Kazakhstan's future -- and I wish them all of the luck and success in the world. There are so many more people to note here, but I'll just mention a few.

I will mis Kh and his wife Ai. We always have fun together and I value our deep conversations on Kazakhstan's economy.

I will miss my "Kazakh family" who live in Astana, Ma and Ti. Every time I visit Astana, I stay with them. I know Ma since she studied in DC as an undergraduate on a Bolashak grant. I will miss their hospitality and I will miss their words of wisdom on life in Kazakhstan. I spent New Years with them and their parents in Astana, and I will never forget their gracious, Kazakh hospitality, and unwavering friendship.

I already miss D, who was one of my best friends in Almaty. We met three years ago during my first stay here and I stayed with her last winter. Until mid-June, when she moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, D lived one block away from me, and I could always count on her for a good, old-fashioned heart-to-heart/vent/girltalk. D has a big personality, and an even bigger heart.

I will miss G, who I met through an email connection, and has since been a major resource in terms of advice and fleshing out ideas. I will miss G's parents, with whom I stayed with in Karaganda.

I will miss T, who is from Uzbekistan and has worked his way up, after studying in the US, to work in a successful finance firm in Almaty. I appreciate his insights on life in general, and Central Asia.

I will miss my office neighbor, Al, who is a professor of Economics at KIMEP. If it was not for his insights and criticism during the research process, and our long chats on informal economic theory, I would be totally lost in my research.

I will not miss being on the same time zone as my family and friends in the USA. I will miss being on the same time zone as my friends in Kazakhstan -- especially when this is such an oral, phone-based culture. I will miss getting all of my emails at night, and not being a slave to emails during the day.

I will not miss being told that drinking cold water = pneumonia = death. I will not miss having to buy water and not drinking from the tap.

I will miss Almaty's wide sidewalks and walkable city. I will miss the view of the Tian Shan mountains. I will not miss the polluted air and "black nose."

I will miss speaking Russian. I started learning Russian late in life -- when I was 20 -- and have managed to become nearly fluent in a short amount of time. It is such a beautiful language. And I will miss speaking the little Kazakh I know in Baraholka.

I realize that this post got quite long, and there are a lot more things I can write, but this was quite a cathartic exercise. Overall, this was one hell of a year. Never a dull moment. I had my moments, as all humans do. There were highs and lows. But overall, I very much love and respect the people of Kazakhstan and of Central Asia. So I will enjoy my last eight days here (until the next trip), before I head back home, where I will return to the stressful "hustle and bustle" of grad school, and reunite with my friends, family, beloved dog, and copious amounts of Mexican food and (shell)fish.




Monday, July 7, 2014

International Interactions in Baraholka

Comrades,

I generally have avoided sharing anecdotes from the field on this blog, in order to protect the integrity of my research methodology and the privacy of my research subjects. But I've had some pretty interesting experiences lately, that I thought I would share.

So as many of you know, I work as a shoe salesman in the international hub bazaar in Almaty, Baraholka. Baraholka is actually an area of the city that includes some 25 to 35 independently owned bazaars. Tengrinews, one of the local media outlets, actually wrote an article on me, which was awkward and funny.

Anyways, I was in the field on Saturday and two dudes walk into our container. I thought they were Tajik, as they had a darker complexion and were speaking what sounded to me like Tajik. I asked them who they were shopping for. One of them said his wife. I asked what is her size, and he said "I don't know, she's 25, can you tell me?" I laughed because usually we have clueless guys looking for a gift for their daughters, wives, girlfirends, etc., but usually they know the shoe size. They recognized my accent and asked where I am from. I said America. It turns out, they were from Afghanistan, specifically the town of Kunduz. They came to Kazakhstan four years ago on a government scholarship. As part of the Silk Road strategy and fostering regional ties, the Government of Kazakhstan provides scholarships to Afghan students to study in Kazakhstan's universities and then return home to work. Tuition is covered and students receive a living stipend. The program started with around 200 students, but has apparently reached 1000 students. These two guys were some of hte lucky students to study here.

They were pretty interesting, and down-to-normal guys. Both of them in their twenties. One of them was married, while the other was not. Neither of them had been home in the past four years. They knew no Russian prior to arriving in Kazakhstan, and had to quickly learn. They commented it was hard to learn. As someone who started learning Russian in Almaty three years ago, I certainly sympathize with their sentiment. They both recently completed university in dentistry and were returning to Afghanistan in a week to work as dentists in their local towns.

They then said I should invite them to America (which is something I hear every single day from all of my coworkers). I responded that they probably know a lot of Americans, given the heavy build up of forces there over the past decade. They said of course, but since Americans traveled through Afghanistan, now they should have the opportunity to tour America, specifically California.

We joked for a bit, and they ended up estimating the wife's shoe size, and I sold the pair to them at the wholesale price. They are students with limited budgets, after all. And who knows if the shoe will even fit.

Either way, student exchange programs between the U.S., UK, Australia and EU states are pretty common, but public diplomacy exchanges is a side to the "New Silk Road" strategy and South-Central Asian relations that you do not really hear about. Given Almaty's multinational population that includes Tajiks and migrant populations from China and Central Asia, it is a pretty good destination for Afghan students to feel at home, gain exposure to a cosmopolitan city and gain an education. Almaty is neither Moscow nor New York in terms of its population, wealth and level of hustle and bustle. But it is a wealthy city with a Ritz Carlton, sky scrapers and a metro. Almaty's universities are considered some of the best in Kazakhstan, if not the region. I have an office in one of the universities here, and have guest lectured throughout the city, which has allowed me to meet a lot of faculty members and students. Several universities here have international adjuncts from the U.S. and Europe, which gives students the opportunity to receive a "Western educational product" without the Western price tag.

It was great to see some Afghan students who directly benefit from the exchange program. Now they have a skill, and can return home and work as dentists. Plus, they have exposure to living in a developed city and interracting with people of different backgrounds.

On Sunday, I had another Afghan client. Three young girls came in. I originally thought they were Turkish or from the Caucuses. It turns out, they were also Afghans, but only one of them spoke Russian. This gal served as the translator. She said that her cousins were just visiting her. They were all in jeans, t-shirts and ballet flats, and one clearly was experimenting with new make-up trends. None of them had their heads covered. They ended up buying a pair of platform sandals and ballet flats. I didn't get into a deep conversation with them, but I have to say that after living here for almost ten months and being exposed to a very conservative mentality on gender roles, it was refreshing to see some young, Afghan girls shopping in Baraholka like their Kazakh, and American, counterparts. In the states, we tend to have a stigma of Afghan women as veiled, when in fact, the country is really diverse and people have different interpretation of gender roles, and religiosity.

A few months ago, I also had another Afghan client. She noticed my American accent. She was wearing a head scarf, but one of those colorful ones, and her face and hands were showing. She was visiting Almaty with her husband, who was here on business.

The point of this post was to share some anecdotes about my interactions with Afghans. There is a significant Afghan population in the states, but for the most part, I feel that we, as Americans, do not have a lot of interaction with people from Afghanistan and know very little about the country beyond the context of the war. Plus, I hope this posts sheds light on the value of student educational exchanges. These programs are relatively cheap in the context of national budgets and are an investment in a country's most sacred asset -- its people (or in economics terms human capital). Finally, these informal social interactions foster cross-cultural communication and diminish stereotypes. If there is one thing I've learned from this year, it is that people are simply, people. And if people of different races, nationalities and religions could just talk to one another, a lot of confusions over expectations, suspicions regarding another person's motivations, actions and beliefs, could be clarified and mitigated. This sounds so corny, but the motto of the story is the following: you cannot make general assumptions about a group of people and communication is key to getting along (between countries and between people).

Well I am now in the dog days of research. I'll be flying home on July 30th, which is CRAZY. While I am so, so excited to be reunited with my dog, friends, family, seafood, Mexican food and Chipotle, the Jersey Shore and the Hilltop, among other things, I will so dearly miss Almaty, and Baraholka. But I'll save the nostalgia for another post.
 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Travels through Uzbekistan

Comrades,

The past few months have been filled with long days in the bazaar, combined with even longer days in the university preparing academic articles and trying to make sense of all of my field notes. I presented at a conference in Astana and was able to spend some time with my good friends while there, so that was nice. And in true American fashion, I am planning for life back in DC next year. Never a dull moment.

I have been wanted to visit Uzbekistan for some time, and after the Astana conference, I took a week and visited Tashkent, Samarqand and Bukhara. Historically, the modern-day territory of Uzbekistan was under the control of the Mongols, Timurids and various steppe empires (Bukharan Emirate, Kokand Khanate, etc.). Out of all of the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan has the most physical cultural history, as this is largely due to its location in between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya river. Historically, the region was called "Transoxiana" (sometimes spelled Transoxania) which means the land between the Oxuses. For a more familiar parallel, think of Mesopotamia -- "the land between the rivers" -- a hotbed for cultural development by sedentary (as opposed to nomadic) inhabitants -- apply the same principles to Uzbekistan.

Due to visa requirements, I went through a tour agency. My tour started in Uzbekistan, where I visited the central square, the textile museum and a Madrasa, where one of the four original Qurans is housed. In Bukhara and Samarqand, I also took a tour and visited all of the major historical sites including tons of Mausoleums and Madrasas, the Summer and Winter Palaces of the last Emir of Bukhara, and some museums.

The highlight of the trip was my trip to the Bukharan hamomi bath (banya). I am a huge fan of Russian and Central Asian baths, and I regularly frequent the Arasan Baths in Almaty. But the Bukharan hamomi is unique. You start out in one room that is basically a sauna and open up your pores. Then you move from room to room in what is basically a cave and are massaged by a masseuse/chiropractor. Anthony Bourdain visited an Uzbek hamomi on his show, "No Reservations," and I included a clip here. While my experience was a lot more therapeutic than Bourdain's, the clip is an excellent overview of the hamomi experience.


I included a sampling of pictures below, but omit a lot of names and historical details, as this post would go on forever. I apologize if things are out of order -- Blogspot is not cooperating with me in moving pictures around, and my internet connection is kind of slow.

Anyways, enjoy, and thanks for your attention!

Statue of Amir Temur (Tamerlane) in Tashkent.

Uzbekistan culture features a variety of handicrafts, one of the most famous is the suzana wall rug. A Bukharan Suzana features a white background (cotton or silk) and colorful, silk embroidery.

According to my guide, the nine circles represent the nine months of pregnancy in this Suzana.

A Suzana made during the Soviet Union to promote the state-run cotton industry. This is an example of how Soviet propaganda adopted local artistic forms. 

The Old Jewish Quarter in Bukhara. Jewish merchants thrived here during the Silk Road. In Bukhara, there are three main trading domes -- one for furs, one for carpets, and one for money, and not to feed into stereotypes, The Bukharan Jews were particularly successful in the third dome, exchanging money. The Bukharan Jews were also successful musicians who played the shash maqan (stringed instrument) in the Emir's court. And Bukharan hand-weaving and rugs is a byproduct of the Bukharan Jews.
Finally, for most Jews unfamiliar with the culture of Bukharan Jews, look at the Bukharan kippah/yamulka, which is very similar to a Uzbek tyubiteka with its highly-geometric shape.
Madrasa in Bukhara.
A menorah, torah scroll, shofar, shabbat candle stick from the Regional Studies Museum in Samarqand. These were owned by Bukharan jews.
Khovrenko winery in Samarqand.
A hall from inside the Regional Studies Museum.

One of two functioning Jewish synagogues in Bukhara. After the fall of the Soviet Union, most of the Bukharan Jews emigrated to Israel or the U.S. The Jews spoke Tajik and Russian, but lacked knowledge of Uzbek so they could not find jobs in an independent Uzbek state. There used to be a vibrant community with thousands of families, and now there are fewer than three hundred Jews here. In Samarqand, there used to be 34 synagogues, and now there is one. I went in and met some of the people working there, and it was nice to be back in a Synagogue after living in a place with virtually no Jewish life. At the same time, it is such a shame that the Jewish community has shrunk so much.


 One of the trade domes in Bukhara. This one is devoted to the carpet trade.
Props to Uzbekistan for naming a juice in my honor. According to my Tajik bratishkas in the bazaar, "Dena" in Tajik means "yesterday."

Bolo Hauz mosque in Bukhara.

A bazaar in Bukhara where they sell "Gold like Fruit." This market neighbors the madrasa and features beautiful, hand-made Bukharan rugs and gold. To many locals, gold and rugs are a store of value and good investment pieces. It is traditional to give these items as gifts during a wedding. Gold, dangling earrings, in particular, are valued by women and gifted by a mother to her daughter at the time of her wedding.

Token selfie from Ulughbek Madrasa from Bukhara.


The Regional Studies Museum in Bukhara is housed in the converted mansion of Abram Kalantarov, a Russian-Jewish cotton industrialist. Kalantarov finished the house in 1914, but only lived there for four years before his death in 1918. During the Soviet Union, the house remained empty and under the control of the Communist Party. In 1981, it reopened as a museum. The museum itself is pretty interesting and is a nice overview of Russian, and Jewish, life in Samarqand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This photo is a snapshot from a wall mural. You see the symbol of the Russian Empire -- the double headed eagle -- and a Star of David. The eagle heads represent the Russian Tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church. So the fact that there is a Jewish star on the symbol of the Russian Empire is extremely fascinating. This symbol illustrates how Russian Imperial rule in Central Asia took on many forms at the local level. Administrators in St. Petersburg, and perhaps Tashkent, were pragmatic and willing to tolerate different interpretations of Tsarist power on the local level insofar as peace and stability existed on the local level, and individuals ran profitable enterprises that contributed to the state treasury. This is also quite a message sent by Kalantarov -- he sees himself as a Jew living in the Christian Orthodox Russian Empire, albeit in a primarily Muslim region. 

This is the entrance to the Khovrenko winery in Samarqand. The Khovrenko winery was started in 1868 by Russian-Jewish entrepreneur, D.M. Filatov. Filatov apparently traveled the world and collected an assortment of grape varieties. He brought them to the fertile region of Samarqand and began his wine factory. The factory has produced wines and cognacs since its inception, and during the Soviet period. Recently, the factory incorporated a vodka production facility into its portfolio.
My Lonely Planet guidebook recommended a visit to the Khovrenko winery, so I naturally could not resist. I scheduled a tour and a private wine tasting. My tour leader was a sweet Russianized Tajik babushka whose great-grandfather was one of the founding partners of the firm. She spent her life working in the winery and her children and grand-children also work here. I admired her passion for her work and for keeping the factory alive. This ranks high under my list of "good life decisions." 

Kukeldash Madrasa in Tashkent.

Registan close up


Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasa in Bukhara. This was one of two functioning madrasas in Uzbekistan during the Soviet Union, and continues to function.

The Mausoleum of Amir Temir and some of his family members and teachers. In Samarqand.

In Bukhara.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum. If you took AP Art History or Introduction to Art history in college, and you used the Jensen textbook, then you should recognize this photo. It is the only one from Central Asia in the book (at least in the version I used in 2008-2009).
This is a mausoleum that features Samanid architectures, which includes bare, clay bricks, rather than the turquoise blues tiles and mosaics of Timurid architecture. Legend has it that when the Mongol forces came through Samarqand, the locals hid this mausoleum under a mound of dirt, which preserved it.


One of the three Madrasas in the Registan. This one is fascinating because you see there are two faces and lions on the top. Islam prohibits the painting of animals and humans on religious sites. My tour guide said that the Khan who built the madrasa wanted to make a point and display his power by painting a lion. I don't buy that argument, but there are a lot of theories.

The "Hippodrome" bazaar in Tashkent is Uzbekistan's equivalent of Almaty's Baraholka. It is a major wholesalers bazaar that feeds small-scale retailers and traders throughout the country. I spent my last day in Uzbekistan in the Hippodrome, comparing prices (on identical goods), and taking in the environment. 


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Statement on Alexander Sodiqov

Comrades,

I just returned form a week-long trip to Uzbekistan. I visited Tashkent, Samarqand and Bukhara and I have loads of stories and photos to share. But time is a little crunched now. The most crazy thing is, as of Monday, June 30, I will have one more month left in country! Time flies!!

But I want to take a moment to write something in support of Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik citizen and PhD student at the University of Toronto who was recently detained my Tajik authorities and accused of treason. On June 16, Sodiqov was taken into custody in Khorog. An article by "The Guardian" has a good summary of events:http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/19/fears-grow-for-canadian-researcher-arrested-in-tajikistan

The Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), Association for Slavic, Eastern European, Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) and Association for the Studies of Nationalities (ASN) have put together a petition for Sodiqov's release. If you would like, please add your name.


More information on Sodiqov:
[Following text was copied and pasted from a CESS email]:
"On Friday, June 27, an international event entitled "Researchers at Risk in Central Asia: The Detention of Alexander Sodiqov" will be held in many different locations around the globe, including London, Toronto, Washington, Paris, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Australia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. In this global discussion, held on the same day in a growing number of settings, scholars consider not only the latest information about Sodiqov’s detention but also the broader implications for research scholars around the globe. Anyone interested in hosting their own event is encouraged to do so."
As a researcher in Central Asia who knows plenty of other researchers, please trust me when I say that research in this part of the world has its unique challenges. All researchers around the world face issues -- language barriers, communication, bureaucracy, trust, homesickness, cultural shock, racial/gender/ethnic/religious/national prejudices, scams, etc. That is research and life overseas. However, in Central Asia, based on my interaction with other scholars and personal experiences, there is another layer of security risks. I will not go into too much detail here, but Sodiqov's detainment is an extreme example of how researchers are perceived by the state and sometimes treated -- even if such treatment occurs in a more subtle way such as a phone call or document check. There is always a risk.

I don't mean to say all Central Asian people and governments are bad  -- not at all. Rather, researchers are viewed as spies, even though we are not. And Sodiqov's detainment by his own government (he is from Tajikistan, but educated in Canada) is beyond tragic, especially since he has a wife and a child.

This is a part of the world that needs researchers, not just for the collection of academic knowledge, but for the cross-cultural dialogues and interactions researchers create. I have so much respect for Western and local researchers and academic institutions and indigenous cultures and traditions in Central Asia, that it is painful to see people who are really trying to do good and help generate knowledge that can inform good policies, be detained. 

Thanks for your support.

Alright, a more positive post on my Uzbekistan travels will come within the week...Cheers!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Vacationing in the Footsteps of the Nomenklatura


Comrades,

Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all my readers!

This past weekend, I had the pleasure to travel to Cholpan-Ata, a small town bordering Kyrgyzstan's scenic Lake Issik-Kul, for a conference and workshop with some other scholars in the region. Prior to my trip, I had heard about Issik-Kul's natural beauty, but seeing it in person was another thing. The water was so clear and the shore was unsurprisingly free of litter and cigarette butts. 

I arrived in Bishkek a day before the conference and while you can take the trader out of the bazaar, you can't take the bazaar out of the trader! During my free day, I was able to visit Madina bazaar as well as Dordoi. Madina is a huge factory bazaar that caters to Kyrgyz domestic producers, while Dordoi is a wholesale bazaar that both competes with, and feeds into, Almaty's Baraholka. It was nice to go back and see Dordoi in season, as the last time I was there was early January. I chatted with the guy who sold me my fur coat in January for a bargain. As someone who regularly deals with customers and has a small portfolio of "regular clients," I appreciated the fact that he remembered me. We discussed "the trade" (i.e. business) and how the season soon picks up again. 

We stayed at the Hotel Aurora, a renovated Soviet-era Sanitorium.  A Soviet "Sanitorium" is basically the equivalent of a health resort and country club. During the Soviet Union, citizens of all economic statuses (even though class technically did not exist) enjoyed their state-sanctioned vacations at various "sanitoriums" where they could go to the beauty parlor, swim, detoxicate in the sauna and receive other medical treatments. Apparently, the Aurora acquired acclaim during the Soviet Union as one of the premier vacation spots for members of the nomenklatura. Too bad I didn't bring my znachoki collection. While I would not classify the Aurora as a 5-star luxury hotel, the facility was clean, the staff was Soviet, and the grounds were beautiful and well-maintained. Plus, all rooms have balconies.

The best part was the fresh air! OMG! Almaty is known for its smoke and the smog that coats the city. Almaty is located in the middle of the mountains, so there is little air circulation and all of the pollution accumulates and sits in the city. In fact, there is the "Almaty nose," which refers to the black snot that comes out of your nostrils onto your tissue when you blow your nose. There is so much dirt in the air here that it inevitably gets into your system. I originally thought it was just me and the intensity of my fieldwork, but it turns out, most people in Almaty have black buggers. 

I picked up some Dominican cigars in the duty-free zone at the Almaty airport for all of 6 euros a piece, as well as some vodka in Bishkek. So between the scenery, cigars, good company and Kyrgyz vodka, I must say that I relaxed in true nomenklatura style. I could not help but to think of the Russian Ambassador from Dr. Strangelove, who while entering the War Room of the Pentagon, requested hard-boiled eggs and "Havana cigars." When one official suggested a Jamaican cigar, the Ambassador responds, "No, I do not support the work of Imperialist stooges." Well, despite the fact that my cigar was from the Caribbean,  I still relaxed in true- Sanitorium form.

I'm now back in Almaty, and back to the grind. But it was a pleasure to go to Issik-Kul, and I highly recommend it! Plus, US citizens do not need a visa to go to Kyrgyzstan for under 60 days! 

Part of the grounds at the Hotel Aurora.

The backside of the Hotel Aurora. Note the souvenir shop in the shape of a yurt, and the Aurora's signature sailboat architecture. Ironically, the grounds contained multiple statues of dinosaurs. We tried to make sense of that. My guess is that they found dinosaur bones in a nearby archaeological site, or the statue factory confused the orders and sent the hotel the wrong order, and the Aurora administration accepted the dinosaur statues nonetheless. Probably the latter. 


We had a lamb for dinner. Here it is roasting. Only in Kyrgyzstan.

Waiters came out with plates filled with a bone and a stuffed pepper. Just picking the meat off the bone was filling enough. The scholar next to me commented, "I wish I could bring the bone home and make soup for days." That is something my mother would also say. Nonetheless, the meat was delicious.

Easter Sunday breakfast! Notice on the table "Kulich" -- Russian Easter cakes.  I would generally describe the cuisine at the Aurora as Soviet -- your mayonnaise-filled salads, meat cutlets and potatoes. It was not my favorite culinary destination, but A for effort.


View of the Northern Tien Shen Mountains from the shores of Cholpan-Ata.

"Sanitorii Issik-Kul" -- the entrance to the Hotel Aurora.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Nowruz in Almaty

Comrades,

Nearly two weeks ago, Spring finally arrived in Almaty, and I could not be happier. The snow and ice that previously carpeted the sidewalks has melted, thereby allowing pedestrians to walk, rather than waddle. I am proud to say that I survived a Central Asian winter without falling on the ice and incurring major injuries. Pretty sure my health insurance doesn't cover those kinds of injuries. Mission accomplished.

The holiday "Nowruz" commemorates the lunar equinox -- when day and evening are equal -- and the begging of Spring. One of my Tajik "bratishkas" (brother) in Baraholka taught me that in Farsi, the word Nowruz directly translates to "new day." Nowruz is celebrated around the world, but is a particularly notable holiday in the five former-Soviet Central Asian republics, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran. The celebration of Nowruz throughout the region is the result of Persian cultural influence during the reign of the Achaemid dynasty. While many in America consider Nowruz an Iranian holiday, as President Obama extended Nowruz greetings specifically to the people of Iran when he should have wished people throughout Central and South Asia (with all due respect).

In Kazakhstan, Nowruz is an official government holiday so students enjoy a week off from school and professionals receive a five-day weekend. In Almaty, there were some fabulous street fairs with music, arts and crafts and food. Nowruz koje -- a porridge drink that contains seven ingredients -- is a Nowruz staple in Kazakhstan. Specific recipes differ, but as long as the drink has seven ingredients, it is koje. Usually it includes some sort of milk, cheese curds, grain/wheat and/or meat. I bought a cup on the street and tasted it. I can't say koje is my new favorite drink, but to each his/her own.

Since Nowruz, it has been a pleasure to see the city, and its inhabitants, transition from the cold, dark days of winter to spring. From my perspective in the bazaar, we have been transitioning our inventory and putting out spring and summer models. It turns out that spring here is a very, very short season and within a matter of weeks, we will be in full-on summer mode. Summers here are pretty hot, and somewhat humid, but not as humid as DC summers.

On a more humorous note, anyone who has spent time in Russia or Central Asia knows that the women wear sky-high heels. They wear heels to school, to the grocery store, to work. Heels are worn all day everyday. This is beyond me. Now that we are entering heel season, consumers come to the bazaar looking for sky-high heels, so I am pretty entertained as young teenagers fight with their mothers over heel heights, while others try on heels and complain that they are not comfortable...well DUH. I've even see girls fall while trying on high heels, and then proceed to purchase them.... Sometimes girls come in with rulers requesting a certain heel height. I asked them why they always wear heels and be pretty. they say to attract men and to be pretty. I get this view, but girlfriends, take a chill pill.

I officially have around four months left in Kazakhstan for my Fulbright and the time has just flown by. Like crazy. I'll try to be better with the blog. Until then, I wish you all a happy Nowruz!





Nowruz Koje.

The stage on Satpaeva street.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Trip to India

Comrades,

I had the opportunity to attend a conference last week in Chennai, India. Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu state, which is just a short plane ride away from Sri Lanka. Since I spent most of the winter outside in below zero weather, the prospect of spending time in 70, 80 and even 90 degree weather was a dream come true. So I expanded the trip and toured the cities of Delhi, Accra (where the Taj is) and Delhi.

At first, I felt a little bad leaving work for so long. The other traders in the bazaar certainly don't have the luxury to just pick up and fly away for ten days. Working in the bazaar is a 24/7/365 business. Granted, many Tajiks fly home to their families during the winter months, but they take turns watching the containers and managing their businesses here in Kazakhstan. Plus, the "trade" (i.e. business) starts to pick up at the end of February and beginning of March, right before International Women's Day on March 8th. And from a research view, there was some interesting activity in the bazaar. Our neighbor was unfortunately unable to make his rent payment and had to give up his container, so just as I was leaving, the new tenants were moving in their goods. So I was interested to see how the dynamics would play out on a micro-level and whether or not they would introduce competition.

Nonetheless, I ventured down to South Asia for ten days and when I returned to the bazaar this past weekend, I was pleased to be greeted by all my colleagues and fellow traders. They asked how India was, flipped through my phone photos and listened to my stories. As a researcher, this means so, so much to me -- the fact that I actually blend in and have established a community there. As for business, it is picking up! The weather is now above freezing and the snow is melting. Sunday felt like a Sunday in October -- when I am running like Forest Gump between containers and dealing with clients. And our new neighbors are nice. They are two Tajik relatives (rodsveniki) who sell women's and female shoes -- the container is split down the middle and they share the rent. Interestingly, they had a container farther down the row in a less ideal location and moved to this location, which is closer to an exit/pathway (hence more valuable), to increase business. They also have a container in Adem, one of the roofed "trade centers" that is considered an elite part of the Baraholka trading area. I asked why do they have a container in my bazaar if they are in Adem. They responded that business in the outdoor bazaars is quite good. This is understandable, as there is good foot traffic, serious consumers, and a mix of income levels, while in Adem you are mostly catering to higher-income clients.

It is interesting because to most analysts and policy officials outside the bazaar system, there is a belief that traders are forced into trading and they just end up randomly at a bazaar. But in reality, there is a methodology to selecting your trading space and a lot of people own multiple spaces and sell the goods at different price points. I know one trading family that sells men's suits and jackets from Turkey. They sell the same goods in several different containers in different markets in Baraholka.

Anyways, back to my trip...

I really don't know too much about Indian culture. In Northern India, I could appreciate the Taj Mahal, Red Fort in Accra and Amer Fort in Jaipur, as these were products of Mughal influence in India. The Mughal Dynasty was formed by Babur, who was a direct descendant of Timur and of the Chingissid dynasty (Mongol). Basically, Northern India has some elements of Central Asian history and culture.

But India is not a country -- it is a continent. While the official languages are Hindi and English, depending on the state, the locals speak Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu, or many, many others. I'm used to blending in as a white, Russian/Turkish-looking girl who speaks Russian. So to come to India, I definitely stood out, which was a good experience as a tourist.

I took a three-day tour from Delhi to Accra and Jaipur and was excited to meet a Russian actress who lives in France. The tour group included a family of five Indian women, an Indian husband and wife from Calcutta, two Japanese exchange students and an Indian guy from Bangalore. Quite the Brady Bunch. But it was fun to have a fellow Russian speaker so we could gossip between each other.

It was also extremely entertaining for me to tour India with a Russian who grew up in the Soviet Union. In India, they love to crank up the Air Conditioning. For anyone who has studied in Russia, you know that keeping the AC on at night and/or opening the window is a death sentence. So in our hotels, she requested a heater. The Indians had a hard time understanding this... And on the bus, the tension between Indians and their preference for AC and my Russian friend, was quite tangible. And for me, quite hilarious.

On a different occasion, we were discussing the overwhelming amount of trash on the streets. I mean, cows and chickens just stand in the sidewalks eating garbage for lunch. It is truly gross and it is no wonder that India has one of the highest rates of diseases and disease transmission in the world. My Russian friend accurately noted that during the Soviet union, they were poor, but everything was clean.

Anyways, I don't really have anything intelligent to say about India. Overall, I was happy to have warm weather, spicy food, and see the beautiful Indian crafts. India has such a rich culture and I barely scratched the surface. So I will attach some photos of highlights.

A picture from the Delhi Haad market. This bazaar is really cool in that it offers 15-day leases for (at least) 10,000 rupees to craftsmen from different parts of India. This is an opportunity for them to see other artists' work and to sell their own to clientele (i.e. tourists) with deep pockets and a love for the exotic orient. This picture was taken in a less-popular area of the bazaar that was tucked away behind a flight of stairs. I always go to the more remote corners as I know the rents are lower and the prices are lower. Plus, there would be fewer people to distract me from chatting with the artists. I ended up buying a table cloth for my mother from a trader who said he was on "the wrong side" of the market and has bad foot traffic. I bought the table cloth because it was beautiful, but it was funny to be the customer and on the other side of the trader-client relationship in a bazaar setting. Anyways, if you're in Delhi, go to Delhi Haad (across from INA market) -- you'll find a great variety of high-quality items. 

Delhi Haad


 The Taj Mahal. A fun fact: the Maharaja who built the Taj Mahal was inspired by the Registan in Samarqand, which was built by Timur.


Red Fort in Accra

Accra

Accra


Fatehpur Sikri. Basically a Presidential residence complex.

The Bazaar in Jaipur.

Jantar Mantar. An ancient meteorological complex in Jaipur.

A part of City Palace in Jaipur.

Jaipur

View of Jaipur from the top of Amer Fort

A view of Marina Beach in Chennai. The beach itself is beautiful, but unfortunately littered with garbage.

As I was enjoying the beach, some dude pops a squat and takes a number two in the ocean.  Really?

I was touring Chennai on International Women's Day (March 8). Near the beach, a group of women organized a peaceful protest. Unfortunately, I do not know exactly their policy agenda.

The flower bazaar in Perry's Market, George Town, Chennai. George Town -- the name is clearly a legacy of British rule --  is a part of Chennai with trading activity and administrative buildings. Interestingly, Perry's Market is an area where traders sell their goods wholesale and retail. It is kind of like a Baraholka. I saw a lot of signs for wholesale trading so it was cool to see how localized, small-scale wholesalers are important in supply-chaining in a developing country outside of Kazakhstan. The goods here are mostly locally produced -- from shoes to paper and stationary supplies to silks. This picture is of one of the flower traders. 

An Indian "shuttle trader"/"wholesaler".

Street shot somewhere on the road between Delhi-Accra-Jaipur.

Amer Fort in Jaipur


I forgot the name of this place. It is part of a Mosque and Mausoleum complex in Jaipur. 

The Flower Market

Wholesalers in Chennai!



Thank you for reading!

Finally, I want to wish everyone a Happy Purim, a happy Saint Patricks Day and a Happy Holi!