Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mourning the death of an Überdiplomat

By now everyone has heard of the recent death of Richard Holbrooke, one of American's all-time great diplomats and the President's Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan.  He was also Ambassador to the UN and to Germany and was twice an Assistant Secretary of State.  He was my Ambassador and boss from 1996-97 while I was at the Embassy in Bonn. Although we weren't close friends, I worked with him on several projects and was able to develop a sense for the man.  Here are a few personal antecdotes:

1)  Ambassador Holbrooke was anything but conventional and could always find a way around bureaucratic hurdles.  Early in his Bonn assignment, he decided that he wanted to reopen the American Consulate in Düsseldorf, which was closed only 5 years earlier as a budget cutting measure because it was only about an hour's drive from Bonn.  However because the Japanese Trade Mission for all of Europe was in Düsseldorf,  Holbrooke felt we needed a strong commercial presence there to compete against the Japanese in European markets.  But an old nemesis and Foreign Service classmate of Holbrooke was the Undersecretary of State for Management and wouldn't approve the reopening.  So to get what he wanted, Holbrooke called a press conference attended by all the major newspapers, televisions stations and politicians in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen and announced that he was reopening the Düsseldorf Consulate. When the Undersecretary heard about it he said absolutely not and he wouldn't even take the issue before the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committees which have to approve all diplomatic posts.  Holbrooke then simply went over the Undersecretary's head to the Deputy Secretary of State and told him it would be a great embarrassment to the United States if the consulate wasn't reopened after it had been publicly announced.  The Deputy Secretary took up the matter with the Congress which approved the reopening.  But the story doesn't end here: I was the person tasked with finding an office for the consulate.  Furthermore Holbrooke said that it had to be ready for occupancy within three months because he wanted Ron Brown, who was then Secretary of Commerce, to cut the ribbon during a planned trip to Europe. Three months was an extremely short period because we had to negotiate and get funding for the lease, have the space fitted out for offices, procure furniture, furnishings and communications equipment, and arrange for security.  I spent a couple of days in Duesseldorf looking at properties and found five for Holbrooke to look at.  He chose the first one I showed him and didn't even look at the other four.  It was an empty floor in the headquarters building of Rheinmetal, a large German industrial concern. With a great deal of effort and a little luck, I was able to have it ready for Ron Brown's ribbon cutting on the scheduled date.   

2) On a visit to Munich, the Ambassador, a connoisseur of the arts, visited one of Munich's best known art galleries. During a conversation with the owner, he asked if he could host a showing of her most important paintings in the Embassy in Bonn to which he would invite the most important people from the government, the private sector and the diplomatic corps in Germany.  When she approved, it became a nightmare for those of us in the embassy with responsibilities for logistics and security.  The security officer and the Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security were especially concerned as our embassies are now fortresses, with only people allowed in them who have clearances or escorts.  Early one Sunday morning, a few weeks before the art show, I was summoned to his residence for a logistics meeting.  About six of us met with him in his bedroom for about an hour while he was still in his pajamas.  He had very specific ideas as to how the paintings were to be handled and transported to Bonn and how they would be displayed throughout the embassy which we of course followed. During the event, a few hundred VIPs (including some from unfriendly embassies) walked up and down the embassy halls viewing the paintings with champagne glasses and canopies in hand. I'm sure that the security staff watched very carefully and that afterwords they did an electronic sweep of the building to ensure no bugs were planted.   

3) One Saturday morning I received a call from Holbrooke's Administrative Aide, telling me that the Ambassador wanted to play tennis with me and that I should be at the court within the hour.  Of course I went and the match started out well, with me winning the first couple of games.  However he soon figured out my game and defeated me soundly.  After the match he gave me an unsolicited coaching lesson, telling me that my serve was very predictable and that I needed to improve my forehand.  This was typical Holbrooke: he was very observant, knowledgeable of almost everything and not afraid to tell everyone what he thought.  He was often difficult to work for but we all respected him because of his high intelligence and his determination to achieve his well thought out diplomatic goals.   And he was almost always right. 

4) Holbrooke's mother was a Hamburg-born Jew and atheist most of her life.  She emigrated to Argentina with her family at an early age and then to the U.S.  Because of the Holocaust, she was determined that she would never again set foot in Germany.  However when her son became Ambassador he persuaded her to come for a visit. During a reception at the end of her stay, she told the assembled embassy staff that she had had a wonderful time in Germany and that it was definitely a different country than the one she had known as a child.

5) Holbrooke spent many weekends visiting Paris to consult with his friend, Pamela Herriman, our Ambassador to France.   He seemed envious because she got Paris and he got small-town Bonn, even though the German relationship was more important to US interests.  Shortly after leaving Bonn, he was married to his third wife, Kati Marton.  She is a former reporter and journalist (now writer) who was previously married to the deceased ABC News anchor, Peter Jennings. She had a book published last year that will soon be a major motion picture entitled "Enemies of the People: My family's Journey to America."

If you didn't watch last Tuesday's evening Newshour with Jim Lehrer, you missed a great discussion with John Negroponte (another former Ambassador to the UN) and with Susan Glazier of Foreign Policy Magazine on the Holbrooke legacy.  Here is the link for it in case you are interested (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/remember/july-dec10/holbrooke2_12-14.html).  This was particularly interesting to me because I also served under Negroponte when he was Ambassador to Mexico.

I believe that Holbrooke greatest regret was that he never got to be Secretary of State.  I think he would have been Secretary if it hadn't have made so much political sense for President Obama to appoint Hilary Clinton.  I'm very sad that Richard Holbrooke is no longer with us and believe that if peace in Afghanistan is achievable at all, he would have greatly contributed to bringing it more quickly.

Addendum dated 11/5/2015:
HBO has just released a documentary film on Ambassador Holbrooke, directed by his son, David Holbrooke titled "the Diplomat" which provides a history of the Ambassador's remarkable career. The link for the film is http://www.thediplomatfilm.com/ and it is available through HBO "On Demand."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Greetings from the Hanoi Hilton

No, it's not the one John McCain stayed in: it's the one next to the Hanoi Opera that helps pay for the comfortable lifestyles of Paris and the rest of the Hilton clan.  But the two "Hiltons" are within walking distance of each other. This is my second trip to Hanoi. Gertrud and I were here about 5 years ago where we spent our most memorable Valentine's Day ever.  The Vietnamese are gradually adopting many Western traditions, and restaurants all over Hanoi were hosting special Valentine's Day events.  Hotel staff recommended a small, intimate restaurant which had less than 10 tables with a waiter for each.  On arrival, we were greeted with roses and champagne and the service got better from there. We had a meal of 8 courses, each more sumptuous than the previous.  We wanted to stop several times but couldn't because we love Vietnamese food and everything was so good.  And every Valentine's Day since we reminisce how special that day was.

The highlight of my current stay was a weekend cruise on Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin where the historic incident with the same name ultimately triggered the Vietnam War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_of_Tonkin_Incident).  Ha Long Bay is the oft-photographed UNESCO World Heritage site which has provided a backdrop to many movies about Southeast Asia, including "Indochine." I really enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of Ha Long on this short cruise which I shared with about 80 people, mostly French.  And through the wonders of Youtube, you can now see Ha Long's beauty for yourself (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxgpaTxhVVs)!  As a side note to this excursion --  my travel agent arranged for me to be driven to the Port of Ha Long by private car. I became a little concerned when I met the driver and discovered that he spoke almost no English.  However, I became more relaxed a few minutes into the trip when he suddenly asked "ob ich Deutsch spräche."  Turned out that he is quite fluent in German, having spent 5 years in Dresden as a student in the 1980s under the East German regime. We had a few interesting conversations and I was able to describe for him the lovely Dresden of today now that it has been restored to its pre-World War II splendor.

Ha Long Bay, Gulf of Tonkin
On Ha Long Bay









Returning to the subject of Hanoi: the city has some of the most colorful street scenes in all of Asia and it is a great place to watch people. It is of course very crowded with hawkers selling an incredible variety of wares and foods in front of their shops, groups of women haunched along the streets eating from their rice bowls with chopsticks, incense smoke rising from small Buddhist shrines, electrical wires running every which way, and of course the constant buzz of motorbikes which intimidate most Westerners and who continuously blink in disbelief as to what they see on bikes.  Today I saw a family of 4 on a motorbike including a baby being held by the mother.  Here are some other bike scenes:  http://www.google.com/images?q=bikes+of+vietnam&hl=en&biw=1024&bih=542&tbs=isch:1,isz:m&prmd=iv&source=lnt&sa=X&ei=7uzoTPCvCoWwceWS6I4K&ved=0CAgQpwU. One enterprising expat has published a picture book and used a play-on-words to entitle it "Bikes of Burden."

Hanoi is a vibrant center of culture, both Vietnamese and foreign.  I have been very impressed with the young musicians that perform every evening in the hotel lobby.  A classical string quartet plays from 6 to 8 followed by either a Jazz quartet or a trio playing excellent Flamenco guitar. Tonight,  the city staged an impressive musical, open to the public, on the portico of the Hanoi Opera, next to the Hilton, which was complete with dancers in brilliant costumes and high-tech sound and lighting systems

Last month Vietnam celebrated 1000 years of nationhood and it was apparently quite the celebration in Hanoi. There are still many decorations, lights and political posters hanging in the streets. And of course, the national hero, Ho Chi Minh, was the center of much of the celebrating.  His picture hangs everywhere in Hanoi and he is revered for having driven the French out of Indochine and for reuniting the country by driving the American out of South Vietnam. It is not difficult to understand their pride when one recalls the images of the last Americans leaving by helicopter from the top of the Saigon embassy,  Many American military vehicles, aircraft and weapons, captured during the war, were on display during the celebration.  However with the war now in the distant past the Vietnamese genuinely like Americans, with the young emulating American youth in most everything, both positive and negative. It's as if the war never happened except during times of national celebration.

Addendum:
20Feb 2011: A tourist boat sank this week on Ha Long Bay.  When I read this it made me shiver!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat


Hello from Cambodia, my first stop in Indochine, the former French colonial empire in Southeast Asia that became Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the aftermath of Ho Chi Minh's defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Indochina). In 1992 the name Indochine entered the US mainstream with the release of the Oscar winning movie of the same name starring Catherine Deneuve (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xJQPuY3G7k).  I am enchanted by the culture and history of the area but am certainly glad (I'm sure Gertrud concurs) that my experiences haven't been quite as adventurous as Ms. Deneuve's tango scene. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97Esl2LedIg)!

I am very excited to have finally reached Cambodia after several attempts. Although my work has been in the capital of Phnom Penh (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phnom_Penh), a long-time personal goal has been to visit the 12th century temple complex of Angkor Wat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat), which many consider to be one of the "seven wonders of the world."  I almost made it in 2008 but my flights were cancelled due to Thai political demonstrations that closed the Bangkok Airport.  In the fall of 2009, I was scheduled to fly to Cambodia from Australia but had to return home for an emergency medical procedure. So I am very elated to have finally visited Angkor Wat which I did this past weekend.

My biggest surprise was to discover that Angkor Wat is only the best known of a large number of temple complexes that Khmer rulers built around Siam Reap between the 9th and 12th Centuries -- BE SURE TO CLICK ON THE NEXT LINK - (http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/srtemples.htm).  Researchers have recently concluded that this area was likely the center of Asia's largest population at the time. I spent several hours in the heat on Saturday climbing up and down the ruins of Angkor Wat and other temples, stopping frequently to view and photograph the impressive architecture and bas relief sculptures which are in various states of disrepair and restoration. My favorite complex was actually Ta Prohm which is much smaller: what makes it especially appealing are the huge gum trees with incredible root structures that have taken over the temples, pushing right up through the monuments and walls.  The following link contains some of Ta Prohm's remarkable scenery  (http://www.canbypublications.com/siemreap/temples/temp-taprohm.htm).
                                                               
At Angkor Wat
At Ta Prohm
















I can't close without at least mentioning the genocide against the Cambodian people, carried out by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, and responsible for the deaths of nearly one-fourth of the country's population -- approximately 1.5 million people. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmer_Rouge).  Identifying all of those guilty and punishing them still dominates much of today's Cambodian news, not unlike the aftermaths of the Jewish Holocaust  or the Armenian Genocide. A further legacy of the Khmer Rouge are the millions of land mines spread throughout the country (http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/menu.html) which will continue to be a threat to Cambodians for many decades to come. 

This afternoon I'm off to Hanoi for a week's work after a short stop in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  I'll be home just in time for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Brunei, the Gateway to Borneo


This week I'm in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunei) which shares Borneo, the world's third largest island, with parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei is ruled by (are you ready for this?) Hassanal Bolkiah, his majesty, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, Grand Chamberlain YAM Pengiran Penggawa Laila Bentara Istiadat Diraja Dalam Istana Pengiran Hj Alauddin bin Pengiran Paduka Tuan Pengiran Hj Abu Bakar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hassanal_Bolkiah).  There have been 29 Sultans of Brunei going back to the year 1405.

The Sultan is one of the world's richest men and owns extensive holdings of oil and natural gas. He also has what is purported to be the world's largest palace and grounds (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istana_Nurul_Iman).   The Sultan is also famous for his vast automobile collection, having been said to have owned between 3,000 and 5,000 cars: according to The Guinness Book of Records the Sultan's personal collection includes the world's largest collection of Rolls-Royces -- 500 in all. During the 1990s, his family accounted for almost half of all Rolls-Royce purchases, bulk buying slightly modified vehicles for diplomats and adding unique cars to their own collection. He also owns the very last Rolls-Royce Phantom VI, a 1992 state landaulette.

Sixty-five percent of the Sultan's 400,000 subjects are Sunni Muslim.  The Sultan has shown some religious tolerance by allowing a few churches, temples and shrines (but as of yet no synagogues) to serve foreign workers, businessmen and diplomats. He holds a firm line on alcohol which cannot be purchased anywhere in Brunei. However, in an attempt to build up tourism and to be hospitable, he allows foreigners to bring in small amounts for their own use. The volume is checked closely on the way in and out to try to prevent it from ending up in local hands.

During the past decade, the Sultan has led a major effort to modernize the capital with new infrastructure, mosques, restaurants, and a shopping mall. It has excellent roads and its drivers are among the most disciplined in Asia.  However, the city is "dead as a door nail" after dark.  There is very little crime in Brunei with the following being a possible reason: as my flight approached the Bandar Airport, the purser announced that anyone caught with drugs in Brunei would be punished with death.

Seventy percent of working Bruneians are employed by the Government. According to my tour guide, public sector employees typically work 4-5 hours a day with a two-hour lunch break and several half-hour tea breaks. Government employees get interest-free loans to build homes. Brunei residents pay no taxes and receive free medical care and education all the way through university if they remain in the country to work.

One of the capital's principal tourist attractions is the suburb of Kampung Ayer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kampong_Ayer) with 39,000 inhabitants living in houses on stilts along the estuaries of the Brunei River.  The government has provided electricity and plumbing to all of them which are connected through a series of wooden walkways.  There are also schools, mosques and clinics on stilts among the homes. Other points of interest in and around Bandar are the Royal Brunei Museum, the Royal Regalia Museum (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwBc3g4XEFI), several interesting mosques topped with golden domes, and the Palace which can be viewed from afar but can only be visited on special occasions.

The primary attraction outside the capital is Ulu Temburong National Park which is reached by boat and is a rain forest preserve for exotic flora and fauna (http://www.ecologyasia.com/html-loc/ulu-temburong.htm). 

Ok, so there you have it -- everything you always wanted to know about Brunei Darussalem. It's been an interesting place for a few days, but I'm ready to move on.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bangkok's Two Faces

Greetings from fascinating Bangkok, Thailand where I am working for a week.  It certainly has a very rich Buddhist culture with its stupas, temples and pagodas as well as it royal palaces (http://www.1stopbangkok.com/gallery).  For those who have reached a certain age, you will remember the 1950's vintage Oscar-winning film "The King and I" with Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr and Rita Moreno (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PlnzCl5x-8)  which was set in the days when Thailand was still Siam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thailand).  The film was probably the first introduction of Thailand/Siam to many Americans.  The public at large became much more aware of Thailand during the Vietnam War when American GIs came here for Rest and Recuperation leave.  In 1979, Gertrud and I spent a belated honeymoon in Thailand because her brother was living here and could offer us the use of his company's beach house. We also stopped through here several times in conjunction with our foreign service posting to Australia in the late 1980's when it was a shoppers paradise and one could try exotic Thai food, long before it became a world cuisine.  I can still remember our first taste of sweet coconut milk in food and we weren't sure we liked it. Now it is one of our favorites.




Unfortunately, Bangkok also has an ugly underbelly which has sullied its otherwise deserved reputation as a first class tourist destination.  It is probably the number one target city in the world for sex tourists, many from Europe, Australia and the US. It is not uncommon to see men in their 60s and 70s walking the streets with 18-year olds (perhaps even younger) on their arms. Unscrupulous businessmen and human traffickers entice many young girls from the impoverished countryside of Thailand and surrounding countries to Bangkok for jobs, which turn out to be quite different than what they expect. Apparently this sordid business is promoted by many in the Thai Government and Police and it has become a major source of foreign exchange for the country. 

Sorry to end on such a sad note.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Formerly Ceylon

I'm currently in Colombo, the capital of what used to be called Ceylon:  it became Sri Lanka in 1972 but due to my advancing age, I often follow the British habit of calling new countries by their colonial names so I don't have to remember the new ones (e.g. Myanmar is still Burma for me and its capital is still Rangoon, not Yangon).  At least Sri Lanka still considers itself "the pearl of the Indian Ocean" so not everything has changed.  This is my first time in Sri Lanka, although Gertrud and I did make an airport stop in Ceylon about 40 years ago.  To me the former name immediately conjures up images of the British colonial tea and rubber plantations which are still being worked.  However today, the country's primary foreign exchange  earner is the labor of Sri Lankans in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates and other oil-rich countries of the Middle East.

Sri Lanka is about half way around the world and approximately a 24 hour flight from Washington.  I reached it via Atlanta and Dubai on one of Delta's new flat bed-flights and was able to get about 9 hours sleep.  I actually arrived in Colombo quite refreshed and can't imagine going on any more flights of this duration in "cattle" class. I'm now spoiled and our kids inheritance will have to take a hit if Gertrud and I take any more vacations further away than Europe.

I'm only here a few days and don't have much time to see the sights so can only report my basic impressions.  My biggest surprise has been to discover that Sri Lanka is about 70 percent Buddhist (the rest being Hindus, Muslims and Christians). I had somehow pictured it as being primarily Hindu or Muslim and much like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  It feels more like Burma or Nepal with many pagodas, stupas and temples dotting the landscape. An interesting local tradition is Poya, a Buddhist public holiday for religious observance which takes place at each full moon (12-13 times a year). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poya).

A Colombo City View
In terms of ethnicity, approximately 75 percent of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese with about 15 percent being Tamils (about half of the Tamils have their roots in Sri Lanka and the other half are of Indian origin). In the early 1970s the Sinhalese-run government declared Buddhism the official state religion and Sinhalese the official language. This stirred up the Tamils, who are Hindu, and they began agitating to secede and to create an independent Tamil state. The "Tamil Tigers" (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1869501,00.html) became infamous due to their early use of brutal, terrorist tactics against civilian populations and have been emulated by other terrorist groups since.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Berliner Luft

Click below:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k65xxlwSYXw&feature=related

Greetings from Berlin, one of the world's most exciting cities, weather permitting. We have just finished a week here working, visiting family and friends, and enjoying as much of the "Berliner Luft" (ambiance) as time permitted.  And on the rainy weekend, we visited a few of the city's great museums which now total more than 200. (http://www.visitberlin.de/english/sightseeing/e_si_museen_liste.php).  Five of the major ones are located on the Museum Island which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum_Island). 

On Saturday we spent several hours in two extremely thought-provoking museums -- the Jewish Museum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Museum_Berlin) and the open-air, Topography of Terror Museum (http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,5545090,00.html). A large part of the former focuses on Jewish life in Germany before WW II and on the important roles Jews played in business, education, culture and entertainment in Berlin.  Later segments were on the great hope Jews had in the early days of the Weimar Republic when everyone was declared equal; and then how badly things turned against the Jews as Hitler rose to power. 

The Topography of Terror Museum contains panel after panel of documents, with analysis, on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  A major focus is on the organizations the Nazis used to control the population and to carry out Hitlers policies and programs. Many of these organizations were headquartered near what is now the museum.  Several analytical quotes on the museum panels make one realize that such a horror could happen again if we don't stay vigilant.  For example:

"The theoretical element played only a secondary role in the SS.  The essential connecting element was, instead, a certain mentality.  Thus SS training consisted of influencing the men's mentality: by the way they did their service, their communal life, jargon and the like.  In this way the SS man learned the attitude of a warrior for war's sake; unquestioning obedience;hardness as hardening himself, including against any human empathy; contempt for the inferior and arrogance towards all those who did not belong to the Order; comradeship and camaraderie; that there can be no such thing as the 'impossible.'  And then there were the simplified and absolute notions of the enemy: 'the Jew,' 'Boshevism,' the 'eastern Untermensch." 
Hans Bucheim, Historian, 1967.

Although my wife is from Bavaria (which has had a long rivalry with Prussia), we love Berlin and visit it often during annual personal trips to Germany. One can never get enough of the Berliner Luft.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hello from Warsaw

where the River Wisla is threatening to overflow its banks.  There has been a watch on for several days due to flooding up river.  The weather has actually been quite nice since Gertrud and I arrived in Warsaw but there has been a lot of rain further north. 

We spent much of this past weekend visiting museums and hanging out in the old city (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Old_Town) which has been beautifully restored since the war during which an estimated eighty-five percent of the city was destroyed and 850,000 were killed.

Gertrud at Warsaw's Castle Square


We found the Warsaw Uprising Museum (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising_Museum) especially interesting. It documents the Polish Underground's uprising against the Nazis in 1944. There was also an 1943 uprising in the Jewish Ghetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising). Unfortunately both were cruelly crushed. 

Poland, with its unfortunate location between much larger and historically more powerful Germany and Russia has had a very tragic history. And there are many monuments throughout Warsaw paying homage to patriots who tried to stand up for Polish sovereignty and culture. Among the most important historical and culture figures are Frederick Chopin, Madam Marie Curie, Nicolas Copernicus and more recently, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II who Poles feel were the most responsible for the fall of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union.  They would strongly disagree with Americans who believe it was Ronald Reagan. 

The tragedies of Polish history are again very visible in Warsaw in the form of a large exhibit in front of the presidential palace honoring the recently deceased Polish president Lech Kazynski.  As you have probably read, he died this past April 10th in a plane crash, together with his wife and several senior government officials, near the Russian city of Smolensk, They were en route to an event to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre in which thousands of Poland's elite were executed by Soviet secret police. In 2007, a Polish director made a film about the Katyn incident (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1207748-katyn).   A friend recommended this film to us just a few months ago and we ordered it through Netflix.  It now appears that Lech Kazynski's twin brother, Jaroslaw Kazynski, who was formerly President, may run again to replace Lech.  Neither have been especially popular but Jaroslaw is likely to have a lot of sympathy on his side if he runs.

(Update on 7/5/2010: Jaroslaw Kazynski was defeated by Bronislaw Komorowski).

There is not much left of Warsaw's infamous Jewish Ghetto but a museum, now under construction to preserve its place in history, is scheduled for completion in 2011.  The following website also provides a history of the Jewish presence in Warsaw.  http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Warsaw.html

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Uzbekistan on the Great Silk Road

Greetings from Uzbekistan, the heart of the ancient trading route know as the Great Silk Road.  (http://www.orexca.com/silkroad.php)  As indicated on this map (http://www.orexca.com/silk_road.html), the Silk Road ran from the Gobi Desert in China to the Turkish Bosporus.  It is named after the famous Chinese export which moved along it by camel to become the rage of fashionable women in Europe and the Mediterranean.  The Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent were major trading centers and cross-roads along the route and have become popular tourist destinations since the breakup of the Soviet Union.  I've been working in Tashkent, the modern Uzbek capital, for the past week which I find much less interesting than either Samarkand or Bukhara.  I visited Samarkand (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samarkand) 5 years ago, and spent last weekend in Bukhara (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bukhara), flying there in an ancient Russian Tupolev aircraft.  (When was the last time you flew in a commercial plane that had open shelves above the passengers).  Both Samarkand and Bukhara are UNESCO World Heritage cites and contain some of the world's most beautiful Islamic architecture. For examples, check out the pictures on the links.  And then put both cities on your "must see before you die" list.

With new friends in Bukhara
A mosque in Bukhara












The vast majority of Uzbeks are Muslims but not very religious.  They enjoy their Muslim traditions and festivities but few pray 5 times a day and rarely go to the Mosque, especially in the cities. Uzbek men also like their beer and vodka, perhaps a corruption inherited from their former Russian rulers.  The young urbanites of Tashkent follow the fashions of Europe and the US with an impressive percentage of the girls (sorry I meant young women) very chic and pretty.  In more isolated Bukhara, which has the feel of a small town, many wear traditional dress.  But I didn't see any burkas and surprisingly few head scarfs.  Large minority populations include Tajiks and Russians.  There is also a long Jewish history in Uzbekistan with the Jews of Bukhara having been especially prominent. I stayed in a bed and breakfast in the Jewish Quarter which was formerly a Jewish home.  Today there are only about 200 Jewish families left in Bukhara with most of the community having emigrated to Israel or the US.  (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Uzbekistan.html).

Uzbek is a Turkic language and Uzbekistan belonging to the Turkic community of countries (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Turkic_states_and_empires).  During the Soviet period Uzbeks favored use of the Cyrillic alphabet, but after independence in the early 1990's, the government had the schools switch to teaching the Latin alphabet with the goal of strengthen their cultural and business ties to Turkey which they anticipated would become their top trading partner, However, this was a miscalculation: while relations between Turkey and Uzbekistan are good, Uzbekistan has found that their strongest trading ties remain with Russia and that after several years of teaching the Latin alphabet, they now have a shortage of young business people who can read and write Cyrillic.









Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Delhi in the Heat

I'm in New Delhi where not only the food is hot, but the average daily temperature during the last week has been at about 110 F with high humidity.  The early mornings are pleasant though and I enjoyed this morning's breakfast out near the hotel pool.  This is my second trip to New Delhi: I was here with the family about 25 years ago when we stopped during our transfer from Nairobi to Canberra to see the Taj Mahal and it was just as hot then.

To me the Indian subcontinent may be the world's most exotic area.  I find Hinduism and its derivative religions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism extremely fascinating although I can't begin to comprehend them.  From our years in Cairo, I can relate much better to Islam and Judaism since they like Christianity are monotheistic and share common roots.  Even Chinese Confucianism is easier to relate to since it is more a system of ethics and a way of living and not really a religion. And Africans are largely followers of Christ or Mohamed mixed together will a little animism or paganism and vestiges of European colonialism so were easier to understand.

There are many aspects of Indian religion and culture that are extremely interesting.  For example, did you know that both the "swastika" and the "Star of David" are also common Hindu symbols?  Of course they have different names and meanings but they are virtually the same in appearance.  One often sees stickers with the Indian version of the Swastika on the back of cars but it has nothing to do with the symbol made infamous by the Nazis. Here are some links providing more information on this subject.

http://www.kamat.com/indica/culture/sub-cultures/swastika.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_of_David#As_a_Hinduist_symbol

 
Although India legally banned its ancient caste system several decades ago, caste still plays a role in Indian life, especially in rural areas.  Urban Indians still make occasional reference to the caste they descended from but now intermarry and seem to regard it as past history.  But I'm told it still greatly determines the quality of life for rural Indians which even in today's booming India make up 70+ percent of the total Indian population.  And many peasants are among the "untouchables" which is something they may never be able to overcome.  

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India#Modern_status_of_the_caste_system
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Indian_caste_system

There also seems to be a permanent servant class in Indian cities that I would guess have emerged from the old caste system.  These servants are readily evident everywhere one goes in Delhi and become a bit irritating for Westerners. I spent the last week in the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi and here are some of my experiences with the servant class:

1. When I arrived at the hotel from the airport on my first day, I had been traveling for about 8 hour in my wrinkled jeans.  Nevertheless I was met taxi side by about 20 hotel employees all dressed in their finest and performing deep bows towards me as I got out of the car. Several called me by name and wished me a wonderful stay. One would have thought I was the King of England and I was frankly embarrassed.  It was really over the top.

2. I felt really harassed by the young man who performed the "turn down" service in my room each evening.  Instead of doing it while I was out, he would wait until I returned from work and then follow me down the hall and into my room before quickly starting all of his little tasks and asking me lots of little questions about how I like the hotel, his service, etc. After the second day, I finally had to tell him to take care of his duties when I wasn't there and to stop following me around.

3. In the hotel gym was a young man whose job was to do such things as adjust the seat on the stationary bike to my desired height, to put the pins in the weight machines where I wanted them and to push the buttons on the treadmill to get it going at the rate I wanted it at.  Now how's that for an interesting career?  But somehow he seemed happy doing it and was absolutely joyous when I thanked him or paid any attention to him. 

One last comment on servants in India:  A friend who was one posted in New Delhi told me that household servants are extremely specialized and territorial and refuse to do things they don't consider their duty. Ironers only want to iron and cleaners only want to clean which means one has to have several servants on a full or part time basis to get all the household tasks taken care of.  He said it also drove him crazy to have so many people around the house. The servants we had during our days in Africa were much more flexible and we generally got along quite with them. And before you say, "what, you had servants!" you need to know that we didn't have a lot of the amenities we have in the US such as dishwashers, dryers, etc.  And besides, why not -- wages were cheap and we provided employment for several people. 
Click on the following link for just one more interesting story about servants in India http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25083907/

Ok, that's enough. Now I can't wait to get to a country where I am allowed to do a few things for myself.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

On the Great Wall

Greetings from Beijing.  Today I hiked on the Great Wall of China, my last of the "Seven Wonders of the World" according to the following list which is not universally accepted. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonders_of_the_World#New7Wonders_Foundation.27s_seven_wonders_of_the_world

See the following link for other lists of the "Seven Wonders."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonders_of_the_World

I hiked along the Mutianyu section of The Wall which is about an hour and a half from Beijing. Construction of the Great Wall began about 220 B.C. and it is 5,500 miles long. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Wall_of_China

On Saturday I joined a tour to see other historical and cultural highlights such as the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and Tienanmen Square.

At the Forbidden City
Click on the following links for more information and pictures of these interesting places:

  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forbidden_City

 
A few days ago I sent a few friends some Chinglish quotes.  This became an issue of interest during the Shanghai Worlds' Fair as reported in the following two links from the New York Times.  Enjoy!

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/05/03/world/asia/20100503_CHINGLISH.html?emc=eta1

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/03/world/asia/03chinglish.html?emc=eta1



Monday, April 19, 2010

Kim and Kimchi in Seoul

Greetings from South Korea where Kim is by far the most common family name (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_(Korean_name) and Kimchi is the country's best known food. With a German wife, I know well the role of  sauerkraut in the German diet but it doesn't begin to compare with the importance of pungent Kimchi in Korea.  It seems that no Korean meal is complete without it and I had no idea that one could prepare cabbage in so many different ways ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimchi).

I was in South Korea once before but since my cultured better-half wasn't with me then, I  paid little attention to the nuances of Korean history beyond the fact that the country was divided into North and South Korea following WWII.  From visits to several museums and palaces, I now see Korea as "the Poland of Asia" -- a pawn of history due to its unfortunate location between two powers. Japan and China have played dominant roles in Korea's history just as Russia and Germany have played in Polish history.  I am embarrassed to admit that until now I had not realized that Korea belonged to the Japanese Empire until 1945. which I'm sure all the rest of you remember from school!!

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Korea)     
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Korean_history#Japanese_Colonial_rule

From a tourism point-of-view, there is more to see in Seoul than we expected, including several royal palaces and excellent museums.   (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto)  Unfortunately we didn't make it to the DMZ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Demilitarized_Zone) but the US military presence in Korea is still much in evidence.  (http://www.usfk.mil/usfk/Default.aspx?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1).  Most Koreans appreciate Americans and seem to emulate our lifestyle more than most Asians. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tokyo - Lost in Translation

Gertrud and I have been in staying in the Tokyo Ginza for the past week. For a short introduction to this area you can check out the following clip based on the movie "Lost in Translation" which was filmed here, 
We too have certainly gotten lost in the Japanese language and culture but have had a wonderful time nevertheless.  Gertrud has enjoyed browsing in the high-end stores during the week and we were able to visit the ancient capital of Kamakura on the weekend (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2166.html).  The famous Japanese cherry blossoms are currently out in full glory as shown below:

Gertrud with Japanese acquaintances
The Internet contains a great deal information on Japan so we will not bore you with a travelogue.  But you may be interested in knowing that the famous Japanese toilets are for real.  We have one in our hotel room and it is just like the one in the following clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSj-XQLrdDc
Here is another unique Tokyo institution -- the hanging gas station
http://photos.travellerspoint.com/91874/tokyo_gas_station.jpg


And here are a few news clips from what appears to be the Japanese equivalent of "The Onion":

From Metropolis.com.jp - The Negi "Reporting the News Before it Happens"

U.S. SENATE HEARINGS LINK TOYOTAS TO DRUNK DRIVING ACCIDENTS
Toyota executives faced hostile questioning from a US congressional subcommittee on Wednesday, as Senators investigate reports of numerous, often deadly accidents involving highly intoxicated drivers who lost control of their vehicles. It is believed that Toyota cars and trucks are prone to accelerate without warning and difficult to bring under control when operated by inebriated drivers.

In graphic, sometimes horrifying testimony, Toyota owner Dale Hicks recounted losing control of his Corolla on March 12, 2006.

“I was coming back from a night with my friends at Pete’s Tavern when I reached for the fifth of whiskey in the passenger seat,” Hicks said, in a sometimes wavering voice. “Suddenly, the car swerved. I tried to correct it, but the wheel spun out of my hands. I tried desperately to regain control, but the car wouldn’t respond. The more I tried, the more erratic it became. Fortunately, I was able to stop with the help of law enforcement officials.”

“These high-speed death traps must be taken off the road, before more of our nation’s innocent drunks are senselessly killed,” thundered Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).  Toyota executives responded by announcing a new drunk-driving-friendly auto made entirely from Nerf and Styrofoam.

-----

JAPANESE CRITICS LAMBASTE THE COVE FOR LACKING IDOL SAYING “OISHII”
Oscar-winning documentary The Cove continues to stir up controversy in Japan, where critics argue that the film paints a one-sided picture of the dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.

“The concept that it is unlawful or immoral for the Japanese people to continue a centuries-old tradition is absurd,” said Fisheries Minister Sakana Ippai. “Because Americans think these animals are cute, they expect us to forget our own culture. For us Japanese, a 17-year-old idol eating a dolphin donburi is cute. But at no point in the movie did [the filmmakers] allow an adorable teen to remark how ‘Oishii’ this sea creature truly is. Without this, the film is biased and seems to suggest dolphins are smarter than our pop stars, which we know to be false. They are clearly equally intelligent.”


Monday, February 22, 2010

Abidjan in the former Pearl of West Africa

Greetings from Abidjan, the capital of Cote d'Ivoire, the last stop of my West African trip.  And what a disappointment Abidjan has been. I was here several times in the early 1980s when it was one of most desirable places to live in Africa with a beautiful ocean setting, rain forest, fantastic beaches nearby and extensive French infrastructure and culture. To paraphrase a term often used to refer to British India -- it  was the jewel in France's colonial crown.  From independence in 1960 to the mid-1980s the country flourished under the leadership of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a benign and beloved dictator, who endeared himself to the former colonial power by worshiping everything French and trying to emulate it.  During his early tenure, the key to the Ivorian economy was the country's ability to produce some of the world's best cocoa and coffee which was in great demand throughout the developed world.  Houphouët-Boigny popularity was due to his being open to all elements of Ivorian society and maintaining good relations with neighboring countries, even welcoming many of their citizens as workers who could then send money back home.  However towards the end of his reign in 1993 he became very strange, perhaps even senile and much of what he did probably contributed to the country's demise.  He wanted his legacy to be his home town of Yamoussoukro and had it designated as the country's official capital even though the embassies and much of the government's work is still in Abidjan.  He arranged for the world's largest Catholic church
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_Our_Lady_of_Peace_of_Yamoussoukro) to be built there, incurring in the process a large national debt.  As completion neared, he commissioned a stained glass window of his image to be placed beside images of Jesus and the apostles. His image depicts him as one of the three Magi, kneeling as he offers a gift to Jesus.  To emphasize his loyalty to France and the French language, Houphouët-Boigny also announced a policy that the country should henceforth be called Cote d'Ivoire in all languages and that the English name Ivory Coast was no longer to be used.  Of course the British Press and others refused to honor his wishes and still call it Ivory Coast.

The gradual demise of Cote d'Ivoire as an African power started with a sharp downturn in world cocoa prices and was no doubt exacerbated because Houphouët-Boigny remained in power long after he lost his ability to lead.  The leaders that came after him were much more nationalistic and even tribal which led to two civil wars during the past 10 years. There is frequent talk of elections but they keep getting postponed. The current government also has a strong anti-foreigner sentiment, even against families who have been in Cote d'Ivoire for several generations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Côte_d'Ivoire#Politics). The civil wars caused the French to depart the country in droves, selling many of their businesses for cents on the dollar to Lebanese businessmen who have long been prominent in the commerce of surrounding countries. And the unrest continues even this week with demonstrations in cities all around the country (http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=50409)

A large new US Embassy that was opened just a couple of years ago now sits half empty because regional personnel from USAID and other agencies have moved to the safer capitals of Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal.  Current staff draw hazardous duty pay and are not allowed to bring their families with them out of security concerns.  Most shops in the downtown area which was formerly a paradise for connoisseurs of African art and handicrafts are now boarded up.         
 
The demise of Cote d'Ivoire during the past couple of decades is not unlike what has happened across the continent in Kenya the former Pearl of British East Africa.   Gertrud and I spent three years in Nairobi in the mid-1980s when it was still a very pleasant place to live. Corruption and unrestrained population growth are among the factors that are ruining Kenya.  And reminders of the bombing of the US Embassy are still very much alive and undermine Western confidence in Kenya. The names of seven embassy employees who worked directly for me are among those on the wall honoring those who were killed. It was erected in a memorial park where the former embassy stood (http://www.memorialparkkenya.org/)

So the obvious question: what is the future of Africa and what can be done to stem the continent's continuing tragedies and chaos?  Are African countries doomed to continue in this pattern indefinitely?  Recent successes in democratic Ghana and a few other countries offer some hope.

Update 21 Dec 2010: 
 It is possible that the Ivory Coast will soon be wrapped up in another civil war.  The President of the Ivory Coast was defeated in a recent election and refuses to concede, demanding that all UN personnel leave.  The Ivory Coast may fall even further from its former status as one of the most desirable African counties to live.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What do you do in Waga Doo Goo?

Not much!   But the Burkinas are very friendly and French culture from the colonial past is still here to lend a civilized touch.

Ouagadougou, or simply Ouaga (or Waga) as the locals call it -- is the dust-swept capital of Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta. It's well-known in US diplomatic circles because it is always held out as the post you will be sent to if you screw up.  Burkina Faso is much like its neighboring Sahelian countries in that they are all extremely poor, Burkina is currently ranked sixth from the bottom of the UNDP Human Development Index (http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics).  One doesn't feel the poverty so much in Ouaga but I'm told that the further one travels away from the capital, the more arid the land becomes and the poorer the people are. I got a bit of a feel for it when I looked down from my plane during its descent into Ouaga.  There was almost nothing out there but mud huts with barren trails connecting them.

The foreign population of Ouagadougou is probably less than 2 percent of the total with most of them being diplomats, UN personnel or employees of NGOs and other aid organizations. There are a large number of organizations providing humanitarian and technical assistance to the Burkina population in education, agriculture, health and micro-business.  For expatriots in Ouagadougou, life can actually be quite comfortable.  Most expats live in walled housing enclaves with interior gardens and with 24-hour generators to keep their electricity and air-conditioning running. Their kids go to private international schools, they have household staffs and they swim or play tennis regularly at their club. While Burkina is technically no longer a French colony, it still has a heavy French presence just as all former French colonies do. And wherever the French are you can be sure their lifestyle is also there. One can get freshly baked baguettes and croissants at bakeries throughout Ouaga and there are several good French restaurants in town. My first real eye opener as to how well the French live in Africa was in the early 1980s in Bangui, Central African Republic, an extremely isolated and landlocked country: I went with a colleague to lunch in a small French cafe and had fresh oysters on the half-shell that had arrived that very morning via air France. 

If you have seen today's news you will have heard about the coup attempt in neighboring Niger. I haven't followed up to hear whether it succeeded but coups are extremely common all over Africa and especially in the Sahel. We experienced a coup attempt when we lived in Cameroon.  It was ultimately put down by the government, but we spent several anxious days at home listening to and watching some of the fighting from a distance. I can sense that the entire Sahel is on edge about the situation in Niger because it disrupts flight schedules and other aspects of life in the region.

After two weeks in Francophone Africa my limited French is starting to return. In the 1980s I had a Foreign Service Institute rating of 2 on a scale of 0+ to 5. However having rarely used my French since then and having learned a little (very little) Spanish in the meantime, I had a hard time remembering key French words when I first arrived, with Spanish  always popping into my head before I could think of a French equivalent. And of course now that I'm starting to remember more French it's almost time for me to return home where I can forget it again.

My next and last stop on this trip is Abidjan, Ivory Coast.  I'll be back in the US next week and am looking forward to it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mali in "The Real Africa"

I've often heard old Africa hands say that the "real Africa" is on the deserts, plains and plateaus of the African heartland, away from the coasts.  Things do seem more authentic in the middle where the impact of colonization is less apparent. Life is more basic with less pretension, less technology and more time huddled with friends and family under a shade tree with a cup of tea while animals graze nearby.  On my trip into Bamako from the airport I was very surprised to learn that the city has 2 Million inhabitants. It feels more like a small town although it would take hours to cross it due to the crowds and uncontrolled traffic, much of it motor bikes.  One can get the best feel for the city after dark when it is cooler and people are out and about. Last evening a colleague drove me around on a city-by-night tour and it was absolutely teeming with activity.  With night lighting one can see into the open restaurants, bars, homes and businesses much better. Bamako doesn't have many touristic highlights but observing daily life and culture is very interesting.

Prior to my arrival I had had high hopes of visiting Mali's two best known tourist attractions - Timbuktu and the area where the Dogon people live. These hope were quickly dashed when I was advised to avoid Timbuktu due to Al Queda activity and when it became apparent that the Dogon area was too far to drive in the short time I have.  I have also been told that flights to and from the area can't be depended on, with tourists often getting stuck there for days.  Unfortunately I'm a slave to my work schedule and have to leave again on Sunday.  Everybody has heard of Timbuktu although many think it is a mythical place. Both Timbuktu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timbuktu) and the Dogon area (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogon_people) are UNESCO world heritage sites. Timbuktu in an ancient center of Islamic learning and a trading outpost on the Niger River.  The primary attractions of the Dogons are tribal customs and village architecture. Glance at some of the following pictures and you will see why:(http://www.dogon-lobi.ch/architecturealbum.htm).  Those of you who live in Salt Lake City will be familiar with the downtown Bambara Restaurant in the Monaco Hotel: I'll bet none of you knew that Bambara is the name of the largest tribe in Mali as well as the country's most-widely spoken native language.  I didn't know it either until I came here.  And I'll also bet that the Bambara Restaurant doesn't serve any Bambara food!

My first trip to Africa was in 1979 and things don't seem to change much for the natives other than population growth and urbanization.  But things have improved a lot for the traveler. In the 1980s when I did a lot of traveling in Africa, the airports were sweltering horrible places where one could get stuck for hours due to undependable flights. There were also very few good hotels and Western travelers often carried their own pillows, sheets, light bulbs and bug spray to get a little comfort at night.  To attract business and tourism most African countries now have reasonably comfortable airports and hotels with air conditioning. Kenyan, Ethiopian and a few other African airlines are now well-regarded and provide dependable service between the major capitals.  The African experience isn't as authentic as in the "old days" but at my age, it is certainly nice to have the comforts.

The State Department has been carrying out a major world-wide construction program over the past few years to replace a hodgepodge of old inefficient embassies.  Most of the new ones in Africa and other developing area are of a standard design that can be built very quickly and are efficient and secure. But there are downsides: the old embassies were in city centers to be close to government offices, businesses and people. The new ones are typically on the city outskirts where large tracts of relatively inexpensive land can be purchased in order to provide a wide security zone all around the chancery.  Most of the new embassies are similar in appearance and size with internal configurations being the primary differences. These new secure compounds are not especially popular with local populations because they have to take long bus rides to get to them. An unfortunately fact of modern day diplomacy is that security concerns have made embassies into foreboding fortresses.  Previously they were welcoming places where the local population could go to check out books and attend lectures and films on American history or culture.  The embassies still issues visas but often only with an appointment or after many hours of standing in long lines.

I hope the winter weather at home isn't getting you down. The temperature here in Bamako is pleasant but there is lots of dust in the air. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dakar in Country No. 150

When I arrived in Dakar, Senegal on Sunday it hit me that I had just reached a significant milestone: it's the 150th country I have visited during my lifetime.  Travel to this many countries was not something I set out to do but I just seemed to end up in one international traveling job after another as Gertrud can well attest. It is understandable that she didn't like my traveling during our early married life because she practically had to raise the kids by herself.  But she doesn't seem to mind now because she can often travel with me. I don't know how many more first-time countries I'll get to before I re-retire but I'd say that it would be realistic for me to reach 170.

According to the State Department (http://www.state.gov/s/inr/rls/4250.htm) there are currently 195 independent countries, although the Department admits this count depends very much on how one defines  "country." The Travelers Century Club claims there are 319 but defines "country" much more broadly to include small semi-dependent territories and islands which have their international interests represented by larger countries (http://www.travelerscenturyclub.org/countries.html), but I digress: 

I have long wanted to visit Dakar and had always heard that it is a very pleasant and colorful city. Although I've only been here a couple of  days I already consider it one of my two or three favorite African cities. Dakar stretches for many kilometers along the Senegalese Coast, much of it on high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. Local teens and twens are very fitness oriented, jogging, stretching and lifting  en mass along the water front mornings and evenings. Perhaps they are motivated by the current weather which is almost perfect. The women of Senegal and throughout much of French West Africa are very fashion conscious and prefer very stylish colorful Afro-gowns and big hats. Traditional Senegalese men wear gowns and caps but the business community and hip young people seem to prefer Western dress.  With a population that is 95 percent Muslim, I've been quite surprised at how friendly the locals are towards Americans. Senegal and the US have had excellent relations for many yeas and Senegal is one of very few African countries that does not require Americans to have visas.  It's my perception that the Sufi Muslims from this area tend to be more tolerant and less militant that some other Islamic strains. The Senegalese economy seems to be doing better than in most African countries with construction booming.  New housing is going up everywhere and a major highway is being built between the airport and the city center.

A major controversy has been raging in Dakar over the past few months.  It involves a very large statue of a man, woman and child that was recently built by a North Korean company on a hill overlooking the city.  The issue seems to be that they are wearing far too little clothing for a statue that is supposed to represent the national values of a Muslim country.  The statue was commissioned by the country's 85 year old dictator at a very high cost and much of the populous is very angry with him.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpHHts2_yY8&feature=player_embedded).   

Senegal is the first country I have visited in the Western Sahel and I'll visit two other neighboring countries before this trip has been completed.  For those who may not know, the Sahel is a transitional bio geographic strip up to 100 kilometers wide that runs from the Atlantic all the way across Africa to the Red Sea. It separates the Sahara Desert on its North from savanna grasslands on its South. It is extremely arid and has been traditionally populated by semi-nomadic people who do some farming and herd cattle, sheep and goats.       

My first 3 countries on this trip were all in English-speaking Africa.  Senegal and the three others I will still visit are all Francophone and there is a very noticeable difference in attitude, culture and style. No doubt much of this stems from the predominance of Islam in French-speaking Africa which is much more pronounced than in the English-speaking countries.  And of course it also stems from the different colonial styles of the French and English. It actually feels quite familiar to be back in Francophone Africa after 26 years.  Our first Foreign Service posting from 1982-84 was in equatorial Cameroon which is largely French-speaking. 

I'm getting long-winded but as a final point: Senegal seems be the favorite African country for US presidents to visit.  The Embassy lobby is filled with pictures of virtually every president since Nixon during state visits to Senegal.  and I'm sure it won't be long until Barack Obama visits too.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ghana: the African Gold Coast

as it was called in colonial days. When the British granted independence in 1957 the new country chose Ghana as it name.  I  haven't had much time for sightseeing here but did take a couple of hours to visit a few highlights including the memorial to the Pan African leader, Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first president of Ghana.  I also made a sobering visit to Elmina Castle where slaves were traded and put on ships for the United States. During his state visit to Ghana last July, Barak Obama and and his family visited Elmina Castle.   There are still many pictures of Obama throughout the city honoring that visit.  One of the more noticable buildings on the main thoroughfare going from the Accra airport towards the city center was a Mormon Temple with Angel Moroni on the top. It almost made me feel like I am back in Salt Lake. 

This will be a very short report as I won't be here long and won't have the opportunity to experience much.  Hope you are all surviving the snow and inversions while I'm surving the heat.  I think I prefer Salt Lake's winter except for last evening when I was able to spend a little time in the hotel pool. 

Here are a few wikis on Ghana and the Gold Coast.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghana

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elmina_slave_castle.jpg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold_Coast_(British_colony)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwame_Nkrumah

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Liberia: Remember Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor?

Greetings from my hotel at Mamba Point near the US Embassy and the US Government-owned Greystone Compound in Monrovia, Liberia.  This area has a very tragic history which I will go into later.

This is my second trip to Monrovia.  I spent a month here in 2004 while working on a contract for USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) following a cessation of civil war when a 15,000 man UN Peacekeeping Force was there to protect the population from more bloodshed.  At that time Liberia was a completely failed state without a functioning government, public electricity, water or other infrastructure.  The US Embassy, UN organizations and other humanitarian agencies were getting all of their power from gas-run generators and water was pumped into large rubber bladders from nearby rivers and delivered to their compounds by truck.  For those who could afford it, drinking water was obtained from distillers or or was brought in in bottles by boat or plane.  In 2004 my job was to help set up an office at Greystone and to come up with some housing for a long-term OFDA contingent that was being assigned to Monrovia.  (By way of background: OFDA is an international first-responder organization with a mission much like that of FEMA in the US.  For example, OFDA staff and its contractors were the US Government's first humanitarian presence in Haiti following the recent earthquake.  I also worked for OFDA in Kuwait in the early days of the Iraq War when we were prepositioning supplies to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis.)

You will recall from your history classes that Liberia is a very unique African country founded in the1820s by freed American slaves. I won't bore you by discussing this history in detail but will instead refer you to the following links on Liberia, Doe and Taylor.  Sargent Doe, who overthrew the old elitist regime of the Tubmans and Tolmans, is still viewed by many Liberians as a national hero: on my way into town from the airport I noticed that the national soccer stadium carries his name. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Doe

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Taylor_(Liberia)

At the beginning of this discourse, I mentioned Mamba Point and the Greystone Compound.  My reason for doing so is that these locations were major killing fields during at least two episodes of the long Liberian Civil War (most of the building in the area testify to this fact because they are still ruins) In one instance, hundreds of Liberians took refuge at Greystone to protect themselves from the waring factions, thinking they would be safe on US Government property.  Soldiers then climbed the walls and fired machine guns into the crowds, killing many. I mentioned Greystone to the hotel maid this morning.  She told me that she and her family had sought refuge there when she was a child and that an uncle died.  The following websites contain interactive maps of the area as well as descriptions and pictures of the tragedy that took place there.

 http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/liberia/monrovia-usemb.htm

http://articles.latimes.com/1996-04-17/news/mn-59568_1_humanitarian-disaster

http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2003/afr671.doc.htm


Here is a poorly written quote from the first link:

"The Greystone Compound is next to the Embassy compound. The Greystone compound is not part of the secured perimeter of the US Embassy. The Greystone Compound is an annex of the embassy, located about 100 to 150 yards (meters) away from the main US compound. Located about a four or five minutes' walk from the Embassy, the housing compound goes by the name of the Greystone Compound.

The fighting in early 1996 displaced at least 80,000 people in the Monrovia area, with over 20,000 now seeking shelter in the Greystone compound of the US Embassy since fighting began again on April 29. Intermittent fighting in the Mamba Point area disrupted the daily delivery of chlorinated drinking water to Greystone. In addition, the water supply for all of Monrovia was insufficient due to a mechanical breakdown at the White Plains water facility. On 17 May 1996, WFP delivered 63 metric tons (MT) of food to the Mamba Point area for distribution to the Greystone compound. By June 1996 a large majority of those made homeless by the fighting had returned to their homes, although many whose homes were destroyed remain in displaced persons centers, including about 4,500 persons in the Embassy's Greystone Compound.

In July 2003 as many as 25 people were killed when mortar shells fell on the nearby Greystone compound, a residential annex to the embassy, where thousands of displaced people had sought refuge. In another incident, two rocket-propelled grenades hit the Greystone compound across from the US Embassy, killing several Liberians." end of quote

Today Monrovia is fairly calm although there are still some UN Peacekeepers and serious ethnic divisions in the country.  Many diplomatic and UN missions also enforce a late night curfew for their personnel. Although Monrovia still isn't generating much power nor pumping public water, Liberia seems to be making progress under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard Graduate and the first freely elected female president of an African country (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Johnson_Sirleaf). She intends to run for reelection next year.  The US Government seems to have confidence in Ms Sirleaf and in the future stability of the country as it is building a new embassy in the Graystone Compound (http://monrovia.usembassy.gov/nec.html

Update: 29 Nov 2010:
 Attached is a recent newspaper article from a Liberian newspaper on the latest happenings at Greystone:

Grey Stone 11.29.10.pdfGrey Stone 11.29.10.pdf

Addendum: 26 Feb 2013:
I'm back in Monrovia for a few days where I've been working in the new American Embassy at the Greystone Compound.  On my ride into Monrovia from Roberts Field, I asked the driver what he thought of the new chancery.  He said without any hesitation that is by far the nicest building in all of Liberia. Constructing a new chancery in a country that as been as unstable as Liberia for the past couple of decades would seem to be a US endorsement of the path Prime Minister Eleanor Sirleaf Johnson is on. She has twice been chosen as Prime Minister in free elections and as I previously indicated, she is the only female prime minister in all of Africa.  
On the surface, life seems to be improving in Monrovia under her leadership. However from discussions with Liberians and expats, I surmise that expectations of the government aren't being met and that many fear that followers of former president Charles Taylor may try to retake power.  The recent discovery of oil off the coast of Liberia is also a two-edged sword: it offers hope for major growth in the Liberian economy but it could spawn even more corruption and provide an incentive for anti-goverment forces to attempt a coup d'etat.