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 ( 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 ( especially interesting. It documents the Polish Underground's uprising against the Nazis in 1944. There was also an 1943 uprising in the Jewish Ghetto ( 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 (   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.

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.  (  As indicated on this map (, 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 ( 5 years ago, and spent last weekend in 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.  (

Uzbek is a Turkic language and Uzbekistan belonging to the Turkic community of countries (  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.

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.

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

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.