Tuesday, November 17, 2015

From Russia With Love

 Rethinking our relationship

When traveling abroad, it is often our first distinct taste of the foreign that uniquely heightens our senses. For me, it was entering the hustle and bustle of a Moscow subway station and hearing the alien sounds of Russian through the public address system. As I descended the steep escalator—and because I understood absolutely nothing—I imagined the announcements as propagandistic Orwellian Doublespeak. I noticed the uniformed guard in the booth at the bottom of the escalator—Thought Police?
Yes, my American mind was clouded with preconceived notions. I’d grown up in Southern California during those final heated years of the Cold War. As a kid I watched Rambo II, Red Dawn, Rocky IV, and had seen countless Russian bad guys in James Bond movies. President Reagan described the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” and the media concurred by painting a stark, cold picture of life in Russia.

On my first Moscow subway car, I noticed that half the crowd was staring down into their hand-held, touchscreen products, looking rather satisfied and sedate. Even a feeble gray haired man—old enough to have attended one of Stalin’s speeches—gazed into his iPad. As people got on and off, noticeably exhausted at rush hour, I began to lose that foreign feeling—that sensation of being dropped into an entirely different matrix. Instead, I began to feel that—with the exception of the language—Russia was surprisingly much more similar to America than the media might want us to think.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a man has been bound and forced to see only the shadows on the wall that the puppeteers want him to see. He is eventually liberated and realizes that his experience has been manipulated. When he emerges from the cave, the truth is almost too much for him to bear. As such, when I emerged from the next Moscow metro station, I began to see Russia in an entirely new light—literally.

First of all, the sun was shining. For some reason I’d always imagined Moscow devoid of any color, including sunlight. (Stupid? Yes, I know.) Illuminated or not, Red Square is a vibrant, impressive setting. The grand, classic buildings are brightly painted, the dimensions are massive, and colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral looks like something out of a fairytale. We walked along the Kremlin walls through Alexander Park, a well-groomed garden with statues of famous dead Russian leaders. It reminded me of similar monuments in Washington D.C. Indeed, every country builds monuments for their best leaders, perhaps out of respect—certainly in an effort to glorify its own past; to foster pride and patriotism in its citizenry. The eternal flame of the Unknown Soldier also reminded me of Arlington, and Paris, and for that matter, any nation that has lost thousands—or millions, in Russia’s case—of lives in war. It made me wonder which is more inane: the kind of extreme nationalism that leads to so many young men dying, or thinking that the sun never shines in Moscow?

Much of recent rhetoric and editorializing has been reminiscent of the Cold War, and old tensions and myopia seem to have re-emerged. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has been demonized for his involvement in Ukraine, his annexation of Crimea, his general defiance toward the US, his recent stance on Syria—and all have led to an anti-Putin frenzy in the Western media. Aside from well-deserved criticisms of Putin himself, this kind of blanket perspective tends to paint an entire nation in broad, simple brushstrokes devoid of nuance or variety. It evokes mainly negative impressions of Russia as a whole—most of them undeserved.

As for Putin, it became clear to me that the man has many fans as well as opponents within Russia. Though Putin has been labeled a tyrant by his detractors, his supporters cite that he has made Russia economically stronger and stands in contrast to his weak predecessor—Yeltsin—who became a poster boy for drunkenness, cronyism, and kow-towing to Western interests. Whether by his direct order or not, the few cases of Mafia-style assassinations of political opponents does only harm to Putin’s reputation both at home and abroad. Some Russians who criticize Putin do so on the same grounds that the Western media does—highlighting his aggressive foreign policy, close-minded opinions (on homosexuality, for example) and his ridiculous shirtless photos on horseback. The major difference is that Russian views tend to be much broader and balanced by his successes. Though I’m beginning to understand his achievements, I’m still critical of Putin’s offenses. I condemn his brand of aggression, whether it’s perpetrated by Russia or any nation.

Here—right alongside our mutual addiction to touchscreen devices and tasty cheeseburgers—we have another striking similarity between Russia and the United States. If we look at the last 25 years of post-Cold War foreign policy history, one can say that the USA is guilty of the exact same offenses Mr. Putin has been criticized for, only Washington has committed these crimes on a much wider scale. Violating the sovereignty of independent nations, dropping bombs on Middle Eastern countries, ‘bullying’ diplomacy, and unintentionally killing civilians in the name of “broader national security” have become commonplace in US foreign policy. Referring to drone attacks, airstrikes, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), and “collateral damage” is so standard in the media that many Americans do not question it, or criticize these shameful euphemisms. From Panama City to Baghdad, international acts of aggression are offenses that every American president is guilty of, yet we hypocritically demonize Putin for exerting the same type of force and bold attitude abroad. Believing we are the exception, we do it in the name of spreading freedom and democracy; stabilizing and protecting. Ask Iraqis and Afghans how this is working out for them.

The last day, on the metro back to Sheremetyevo airport, the familiar glared at me from across the aisle: an older man on his Kindle, right next to the Rihanna-blaring head phones of a hip-hop inspired Asian teen. I could have been in London, New York, or San Diego. Going into the trip I’d expected so many differences between Russia and the United States, but I found the opposite. After doing the familiar drill at airport security—taking off my belt, shoes, and emptying my pockets into the bin—it became even clearer to me. With the looming threats of terrorism, climate change, and economic collapse, it will be crucial for Russia and the US—both developed, prideful and powerful—to find common ground and work together on imminent global issues; to develop trust, understanding, and move forward based on real commonalities rather than imagined differences. The bitter alternative to this might prove disastrous.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"For a remember of Sarajevo"

It was 38 degrees Celsius (100F) when we arrived in Sarajevo. The soaring minarets that mark the Islamic world were ubiquitous. It also happened to be a national religious holiday in Bosnia – Ramadan Bajram (end of Ramadan). This triggered some immediate questions in my secular Western mind: Are Americans welcome here? Does my girlfriend need to cover her legs and shoulders in public? Do I need to wear pants – a collared shirt? What about alcohol?
Our pension was perched on the bend of the Miljacka River, just east of the old town. The terrace had a view of the river and a hillside that was dotted with mosques. We watched people walk across the nearest bridge – one woman in a tank top and a man in shorts. The waiter brought us beer and water. I thanked god that the drinks were cold, and my first questions had already been answered: Beer will be easy to get. My girlfriend and I don’t need to worry about our wardrobe.
We sat and drank and absorbed the view. First one, then multiple calls-to-prayer filled the air – a droning wall of sound. I gazed up at those hills and couldn’t help but imagine Serbian snipers shooting at Sarajevans as I’d read about. Though I had visualized it years ago, the setting wasn’t real to me until I was there. I sipped and scanned for likely sniping spots from third floor windows, and realized that I’d never looked at a pleasant hillside and been frightened of its history before.
I could remember only flashes of the U.S. news reports on the Bosnian War in the early 1990’s. I was in high school in San Diego back then and didn’t know half the story, nor was I too curious about it, like many self-absorbed teenagers. Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia weren’t real places to me when I was 16 years old. I had no point of connection; no context.
I’d heard about the ‘Siege of Sarajevo’, but that was it. Though I’d educated myself on the topic since then, the more I stared at those hills and admitted the former blanks in my adolescent mind, the more it bothered me.

Hookahs and modern Islam in Baščaršija

After sunset, we left the room and headed toward the historic center, Baščaršija. All the action was here: packed outdoor cafes with people sitting on small Kilim stools with hookah pipes; loud Western club music bumping from inside bars; 16th century, bottom-lit mosques; a beautiful cathedral – and all of this along crowded, pedestrian-only Sarači street. Women in miniskirts and hijabs strolled with one another in perfect harmony. Young men walked arm in arm, laughing and carrying on. Everyone was out celebrating the end of Ramadan. Many were eating in garden courtyard restaurants, some smoking, some drinking alcohol. It painted a picture that Fox News-minded Americans might not be able to conceive – a completely tolerant, open, modern, peaceful Islamic society.
We soon turned off Sarači in favor of a dim, narrow path and ended up at a hookah bar. After sitting down, we found out they didn’t serve any alcohol. But with an enchanting view of an Ottoman mosque and oriental plumes of smoke all around us, we decided to stay put. Not being smokers, it didn’t take long for the shisha to take effect. I got lightheaded and dizzy in an embarrassingly short amount of time. It began to make sense why they didn’t mix this stuff with booze.
When I noticed a neon sign that advertised bus tours to the “Bosnian Pyramids,” I didn’t know if I was starting to hallucinate or what. This and my subsequent coughing fit were signs that it was time to call it a night.

Ghosts of the past
On the walk back, I looked up into the hills and focused on a bright second-story window. I cringed inside, imagining a rifle with a scope pointed right at me – images of bodies lying in pools of blood in these streets – and I couldn’t help but ask the obvious: how could this great city fall into such violence only 20 years ago?
The next morning I woke up much earlier than usual and ventured out on my own. The first thing I noticed was the colorful town hall in the daylight – an eccentric, attractive mixture of East and West. As I passed by, it hit me: I was walking the path of the Austrian archduke’s motorcade that led to his historic assassination in 1914. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who struck just blocks away, was probably convinced that his symbolic act would lead to positive change for Serbia and the Balkan region. Like most well-intentioned acts of violence, it backfired. The assassination ended up triggering the dominoes that sparked World War I.
I continued my walk through Baščaršija. The cobbled market streets were all opened up during the day, like bazaar in Istanbul. Rows of small silver coffee cups glistened in the sunlight. Vibrant pottery, Turkish carpets, and touristy trinkets were all on display. Old stonework, domes and minarets brought Sarajevo’s Ottoman past to life. It was hard to believe that most of these buildings had been recently destroyed. And, right then, my fascination with Sarajevo made sense: it was if this one city embodied all the tragedy, hope, and varied potential that our global civilization faces.
Less than an hour later, I was handing over the keys as we left the pension. The receptionist smiled as if we knew him, stopped us and presented me with a royal blue coffee cup with the Bosnian flag on it.
“This for you,” he said, “For a remember of Sarajevo.”

On any other occasion I would’ve laughed inside, but my war-racked imagination didn’t let me. I gave those haunting hills one last look. My head was swirling with disturbing questions about what it meant to be a traveler in such a place. But one thing was certain: I would always remember my time in Sarajevo – and not because of the free coffee mug.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Reading Abroad

One of the best things about traveling is discovering the voices and perspectives of people from different countries and cultures. If you’re in an extroverted mood and are fortunate enough to meet some locals, this can happen over drinks and a funny ESL conversation. If you’re on the introverted side, there’s nothing better than finding a foreign author you love. It feels good when you’ve dug into a foreign bookstore and found a new author or an English translation that’s not in the US. ‘Bookstores? Seriously?’ -you might ask. Even if your Kindle allows you to never set foot in any bookstore again, being in a foreign country allows you to come across books and authors that Amazon or Goodreads would probably never recommend.

I will skip some big names because, I assume, they are popular enough to have crossed your radar before. Authors such as Japan’s Haruki Murakami, or Nigerian born Chimamanda N. Adichie come to mind. There are many other seemingly foreign authors, like Jhumpa Lahiri, who are American yet have roots elsewhere. (They belong in an esteemed category of their own.)

The following are a few foreign authors I recommend checking out:
I came across his novel 'Me, You' in a bookstore in Trapani, Italy. The owner recommended this and 'Three Horses'. I enjoyed both of them so much that I’ll be searching for others the next time I’m in Italy. His simple, clear, honest style reminded me of Hemingway. His stories are timeless, and his themes are subtle yet strong.
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, but few Americans have heard of this famous Egyptian writer. I happened to be in the American University bookstore in Cairo and, again, an employee recommended 'The Journey of Ibn Fattouma' and likened it to 'The Alchemist'. Honestly, I thought it was better than Coelho’s classic. I have since read 'The Search' and 'Miramar' and look forward to the next one.
This author was bartending in San Diego, California while his book was a bestseller in Bulgaria. I found it in a bookstore in Sofia. I may be a bit biased because '18% Grey' begins in San Diego, my hometown, and from there takes the reader on an 'Easy Rider'-like journey across America—through the unique, insightful eyes of a Bulgarian.

Of the authors mentioned here, Kadare is perhaps my least favorite because he leans toward the magical realism (or literary surrealism) that tends to lose me. The thing is, there’s something about his style—his poetic use of language—and odd, original story lines that keep me interested in reading another one of this famous Albanian’s novels.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hungarian-Serbian Border Crisis

“As you read this… you may be sure that the same ghastly, shambling procession of people driven from their homes is filing in unbroken line along the muddy road to Macedonia.” Ernest Hemingway wrote this in November 1922 from Sofia, Bulgaria. He had just witnessed part of the forced expulsion of Greek refugees from Turkey at the border crossing near Edirne. Thousands of refugees—many of their family members recently killed by Turks—were fleeing for their lives. With ragged, desperate faces, they were not welcomed anywhere.

Now, with thousands of Syrians and Iraqis making their way into Europe via Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia, it’s Greece and Serbia that are now flooded with foreign immigrants who are stuck in no-man’s land—compelled to leave their war-torn countries yet blocked from crossing Hungarian and Macedonian borders en route to Western Europe. A few humanitarian aid groups have recently offered to help these poor immigrants, but the ‘shambling procession’ is far greater than any non-profit—or one country—can handle (up to 2,000 per day). 

This past weekend I travelled by bus through Serbia on the way to Budapest and was shocked by the long wait at the Bulgarian-Serbian border, and the outrageous 4-kilometer line at the Hungarian border at 3am. When we hit the sea of red brake lights, it was as if the highway had turned into a parking lot. The lights and engines of cars eventually turned off and passengers pushed them forward to conserve gas. Outside the Serbian OMV petrol station, immigrants lingered and smoked cigarettes, waiting for who-knows-what signal to attempt to cross the new barbed wire border fence. Hungarian police were turning half the cars and people back. It took almost four hours for our small bus to cross, but only because we were lucky enough to be in the bus lane (and have Western passports).  Others must have been waiting for days—literally. We finally passed into Hungary at sunrise, when the light made the disgusting amount of litter on the side of the road all too visible. The discarded human waste revealed two grave problems: the lack of options for the refugees and the uncertain consequences of blocking EU borders.

Once we made it into Hungary, our bus stopped at the first gas station to purchase a vignette (toll receipt) for the highway. At 6am, groups of mostly men huddled outside. The inside of the snack bar area was crowded too. With at least a hundred people out and about, this gas station seemed to be a meeting point for those who had crossed illegally and arranged rides. In the two minutes it took me to go to the bathroom, I saw quite a lot: Two guys were practically showering in the sinks of the public restroom. Three teenage boys sprinted through the parking lot as if being pursued. A destitute man slept face down on a cement parking space, covered with blankets. Dozens chain-smoked, in limbo—some seeming to cope with the situation better than others.

As our bus pulled away, I felt my frustration and annoyance—at being delayed for hours at the border, having sore limbs from 18 hours of idle sitting, and a looming non-refundable hotel room charge—quickly fade into something like guilt. When we made it to Budapest, our colleagues offered their sympathies after hearing of our long, exhausting bus ride. In retrospect, it was nothing. Tens of thousands are currently trekking from Turkey through the Balkans in search of a life where survival isn’t an all-consuming task. They have little or no support and everything to fear on the way. Indeed, there is a huge difference between travel inconvenience, and matters of life and death.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Albanian Riviera: Travel vs Tourism

To many Europeans, Albania is the poor, corrupt, crime-ridden, armpit of the Balkans. I’m sure some people, like Donald Trump—if he could locate it on a map—might even label Albania as a land of rapists! But what I recently witnessed while driving along the southern coast was breath-taking, beautiful views, pristine beaches, and kind locals. Albanians were nice-- very nice. And I'm even torn about revealing some of these true gems, fearful that the best beach towns will soon become overdeveloped and crowded. 
After a treacherous drive through interior Albania, I returned home and talked with a few curious people about my trip. I noticed that potential visitors want a thumbs up or thumbs down, but it's not so simple. 
Here's the seemingly basic question: Is Albania a place I would universally recommend?
For travelers, YES.
For tourists, NO.

The typical “tourist” wants to see world-famous monuments, unique architecture, or well-restored archeological sites. The tourist wants to be safely shuttled from one pretty place to another, always ready for canned photo opportunities, a polished centro historico, English menus, and a souvenir zone. So, I’m assuming, the endless unfinished/abandoned buildings, the roadside eyesores, the lack of infrastructure, disorganization, ubiquitous road hazards, and lack of Western hotel chains makes Albania a less desirable place for the average tourist.

On the other hand, Albania is great for travelers. “Travelers” tend to be interested in the reality and culture of a place, so potholes and shantytowns do not make them cringe. They are willing to hike an extra mile and explore on their own in order to discover a relatively unknown Roman ruin or an un-crowded, picturesque beach. Travelers also tend to be open to new experiences that might include waiting at a kebab stand to meet the old man owner of an unmarked B&B who speaks absolutely no English but is renting clean rooms for 25 euros, 10 meters away from the beach! Travelers will follow this old man down a dirt road while almost being hit by speeding cars and stared at by locals as if they are alien beings.
So, you decide.
If you are a traveler, here are some great reasons to go to the Albanian Riviera:

Ksamil: Small beach town in the far south (close to Corfu, Greece).  Interesting, multi-layered archeological site, Butrint, is 10 kilometers away. 

Sarande: Big beach town just north of Ksamil. Good for bigger hotels, ATM’s, nightlife, and cement slab “beach” bars.  

Himare: One of the most obvious, expansive beach towns on the drive north of Sarande. There are numerous undeveloped, turquoise sea coves in the nearby area.

Dhermi: A cool beach town. Wind down the road and enjoy the long, pebbly beach and the view of the mountains.

Note: There were absolutely no signs of crime, corruption, or raping while traveling in Albania. 
Want more details about travel in Albania? -click here

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Craft Beer Revolution: Dispatches from the Eastern Front

Jedna Craft Beer, Warsaw, Poland

The bartender’s long, Amish-style beard and thick black-rimmed glasses looked as if they could be purchased as an all-in-one Halloween costume labeled “The Hipster”.  I gave him a warm Western nod, ordered a blonde pale ale, and sat down at the permanently IPA-scented wooden bar. The barkeep’s pleasant demeanor faded as soon as I opted for the smaller sized beer—or maybe because I’d just ordered the blonde, the weakest beer on the chalk written list. I sipped and examined the empty bottles of Stone and Alesmith that were proudly displayed near the cash register.  Now, if you’re thinking that this is quite an unremarkable scene, you’re probably right—if it had happened in San Diego, California.

But this occurred in Warsaw, Poland two weeks ago at Jedna Craft Beer.
And I experienced something similar last week at Kanaal Bar in Sofia, Bulgaria. The only difference in Sofia was that I got to speak to one of the full-bearded brewers that night as I sipped his fresh, tasty IPA.  His name was Branomir, he’s Serbian, and he’s one of few craft brewers in the Balkans

Read more @http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/jun/03/craft-beers-eastern-front/