Depressed

Since I’m feeling wicked sorry for myself today, I offer up these two links. The first one is Krugman’s latest column on the Third Depression. This doesn’t surprise me. Enjoy it. The second link is Joe Bageant’s latest post on, well, who knows, really. I’m only half way through and it’s done nothing to life my spirits, spirits that began a nasty descent yesterday and don’t look as if they are going to make an ascent any time soon.

I miss cold showers in India. I miss sleeping in cheap, five dollar a night hotel rooms with no AC. I miss eating strange foods then getting sick. I miss being out of my comfort zone twenty four hours a day, strange stares and even strange languages. I miss being dirty. I miss long bus rides across impossibly magnificent landscapes. I miss the colors of people who live close to the land, with the land, on the land. I miss strange sounds.

I miss the world.

And every day I grow more and more tired of this anodyne, fluorescent light-bulb existence.

I Get Hatemail

A Toilet In Hell?My post ‘Reflections On India’ has generated a great deal of email. More email than anything I have every written, as a matter of fact. Most of the emails have been positive, in one way or another. I’d say the ratio is about 35-1 positive to negative.

In the post I was very harsh on India; however, what I wrote seems to have struck a chord. I’ve been moved by the honest replies I’ve gotten and look forward to meeting many new friends when the chance comes. But today I received my first hate email via Facebook.

The title was simple and eloquent: “Go Fuck Yourself.”

The body of the email was equally simple: “Motherfucker.”

Now, aside from the fact that I have dated women who are mothers from time to time, I don’t think this is what my interlocutor meant. I was tempted to tell him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” But I didn’t and I replied thusly:

“That’s quite an intelligent reply. I’ll be sure an add that one to my next response post.
However, if you would like to try again and actually offer substantive points to debate, instead of insults, I’d be happy to discuss this with you.
Regards,
Sean Paul”

In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to point my new friend to this New York Times story validating everything I ever said about India’s rail lines.

It can’t all be negative, however. So, I offer this wonderful photo as evidence that there are things in India you simply will never see anywhere else in the world.

AKP And Stealth Islamism In Turkey

Protest, BeyolguThis story by John Feffer about Turkey is popping up just about everywhere on the internets. The author, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, has as his thesis that “Turkey is chasing China to be the next big thing.” This is rather fanciful and the China analogies litter the essay. I’ll give him this, many of his facts in the essay are correct: Turkey has largely become Europe’s silent manufacturer and his deconstruction of Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems With Neighbors’ is an excellent elucidation of Turkey’s foreign policy. Further, the Turks are on their way towards rectifying the Kurdish problem.

As for superpower? Look, this is silly. No doubt whoever controls Anatolia and the Straits will always be powerful in a regional sense. But a superpower? How will Turkey project power outside of the Mediterranean Basin? They don’t even have nukes, which is pretty much the contemporary definition of great power status. In spite of its problems, the essay is worth a read as a primer on Turkey’s history since the death of Mustafa Kemal. The biggest fault with the essay, however, is his terribly dismissiveness of Islamism’s rise in Turkey. He writes:

This is, however, a fundamental misunderstanding of the AKP and its intentions. Islamism has about as much influence in modern-day Turkey as communism does in China. In both cases, what matters most is not ideology, but the political power of the ruling parties. Economic growth, political stability, and soft-power diplomacy regularly trump ideological consistency. Turkey is becoming more nationalist and more assertive, and flexibility, not fundamentalism, has been the hallmark of its new foreign policy.

Feffer, sadly, misunderstands the role of how “Economic growth, political stability, and soft-power diplomacy regularly trump ideological consistency.” These are the AKP’s means to an end. I’ve seen it firsthand in Turkey. Islamism is real. Very, very real. The Secularists in Turkey are boxed in. So are the Generals. The Secularists don’t have an answer to Erdogan’s economic growth miracle, because the Secularist economic policies are and were bankrupt. Corruption of the worst kind was rampant. Hyper inflation and economic crises like clockwork were the norm under the last twenty years of secular and military rule. When I first visited Turkey in 2001 one US dollar was worth millions of Turkish lira. The notes were simply insane. Try counting none or ten zeros when you wanted to buy a coke. Dinner was a joke.

Today the lira is stable. Turkey’s economy churns along. Economic life in Turkey is better than it has been in a very, very long time. The AKP has gone a long way towards neutralizing the deep state in Turkey, as well as eradicating the worst signs of corruption, although not eliminating it completely. No, I am not idealizing life under the secularists; it had its problems. But the warning signs of a creeping Islamism under the AKP are real.

While I was there in 2001 or even 2003 seeing a woman in Istanbul with a veil was unlikely. Not any more, as this link makes clear. This link is also indicative of how hard it is to come to grips with the reality of Islamism in Turkey. At first, I too got caught up in the talking point of choice, a kind of post-modern spin on women’s rights, which is anything but. It goes like this: women in Turkey are free to wear the veil or not wear the veil. It is their choice. But, as I investigated closer what I found was the opposite: the social pressure, from fathers to neighbors and the increase in honor killings, to conform to the politics of the veil were very real. That isn’t choice, not as I define it. I don’t want to go into the whole debate again, suffice it to say that many young women in Turkey don’t have a choice.

Nor is Islamism’s creep limited to the rights of women. The theory of evolution is under attack in Turkey. And Turkey is one of the few places in the developed world, outside of America, where science itself is being challenged. As a matter of fact, if you took the Christianist project here in America and put an Islamist label on it in Turkey, it would be almost identical.

There are places where alcohol is banned in Istanbul, as well. Sure, tourists can drink to their hearts content. But locals? Nope. In parts of Anatolia, never a liberal bastion, a quasi-Shari’a is often enforced, if not lawfully, then by custom. And these customs are moving West, to Izmir, Bursa and Istanbul itself as rural immigrants pore into the cities.

These are just some of the reasons why the Gaza Flotilla is such a turning point in Turkish politics. The AKP is slowly chipping away at the foundations of secularism in Turkey. And they are winning. The Gaza Flotilla and Erdogan’s attack on Peres at Davos were exhibitions of soft-power par excellence. But, before we cheer Erdogan on in the face of Israel’s coarse and brutal siege mentality, its flouting of international norms and the continuing inhumane blockade of Gaza, let’s keep the domestic Turkish context in mind. Politics, as they say, make strange bedfellows.

The good news is that Turkey presents a serious challenge to the neo-con project in the Middle East (a project, I hasten to add, I do not in any way support). Turkey presents a much needed wake-up call to the American political class’s constant obeisance to Israel, as well. As Erdogan has proven, he is an adroit wielder of Turkey’s significant soft-power.

I’ve long been of the opinion that if there is to be an Islamic democracy it would have to rectify the values of Islam and the values of secularism and pluralism. It would have to be a democracy in an Islamic context, much as Japan is a democracy in an East-Asian context. And this is a project I’ve not given up on. But helping such a project along requires restraint and nuance (not to mention patience) on the part of American policy-makers. This might be a temporary swing of the pendulum in Turkey’s domestic politics, but then again, it might not.

Alas, the American foreign policy establishment has proven time and time again that it doesn’t do nuance. And restraint?

But in order to keep Turkey in our orbit they’ll need to learn both.

I’m not holding my breath.

While The Oil Gushes, I Ponder My Responsibility

Oil Refinery Somewhere In TexasEvery day I drive to work. Once a week I pay close to $40 to fill up my tank. When I am not driving to work, I try to ride my new bike everywhere I go, even in the almost 100* Texas heat. And when I drive, I think about the oil-soaked pelicans in the gulf, the porpoises washing up on Alabama beaches, literally oozing oil from their insides-out. I feel the weight of the guilt each time I shift gears, and remind myself not to gun the engine too much, better to save oil.

My carbon footprint is lower than it has ever been. Some nights, when it’s cool and overcast I open the windows in my tiny garage apartment and sleep in the warm Texas night. I’m used to the discomfort, having passed many nights in Southeast Asia and India without any form of air conditioning. I take cold showers, better to save the natural gas. Again, I’m used to cold water, having learned to like it while traveling in India and Southeast Asia. (Of course, I use hot water in the winter months.) When I wash my clothes, I don’t use hot water. When I dry them, I use a clothes line.

But every day that passes with dead birds washing up on shore I ask myself what more I can do?

I try and eat vegetables and such that don’t require cooking in the microwave or meats on the gas stove. I still can’t give up meat totally–I’m not that good of a Buddhist yet. I separate the aluminum cans, glass bottles and paper, from the food waste, better to recycle. I don’t have any toys, other than an iPad, a MacBookPro and an iPhone. They are toys, but they have other, environmentally friendly uses, as well. For example, I don’t own a TV, flatscreen or otherwise. I try to live as frugally as possible, going so far as to buy the majority of my books in electronic format now, better to save the trees. (And this is probably the biggest sacrifice I’ve made because I love the feel of books.)  One reason I bought my iPad was so I would stop printing up news stories on the internet, again, better to save paper.

I don’t own any power tools. No gas powered grills. I take my shoes to a cobbler. I have my old clothes, suits included, altered when necessary.

But every day I ask myself, what’s my responsibility?

I don’t live the American dream, although with my job I could probably buy a home and a big SUV just like everyone else here in liberal Austin.

I have to get to work. I’ve asked to be able to work from home two or three days a week to save energy. My requests have been declined. I’ve looked for a small efficiency apartment near work to lower my gas bill, but when I sit down to figure the costs, it would raise my carbon footprint to live in a bigger place. Personal conservation is a virtue, I suppose, but it isn’t easy when all of our living arrangements are stacked against me. It’s hard to break free from the system.

I’m not some kind of get back to nature, dirty hippie, or a survival nut. Just a guy living in a modern American city trying to be responsible.

And yet, every day I ask myself, what more can I do?

Over The Tien Shan

Yurts in a ValleyOsh, Kyrgyzstan: a post-apocalyptic dump filled with squalid Kruschev-era apartment blocks, febrile, mosquito-ridden air, and regrettable food.

Alone.

Two great mountain ranges encircle the town. To the north and east the Ferghana Range hovers above the city. From the south the Pamir massif pushes up, shrouding the city in a warm, orange embrace.

I need to leave.

A few days before I’d weathered a mob of people and machines crossing over the border from Uzbekistan. But the Kyrgyz side was sleepy, uneventful—not even a passport check.

Getting out, however, was proving difficult.

One escape is flying an antiquated Soviet-made turbo prop through the mountains, “not over them,” as the airport ticketing agent said. The other requires finding, haggling with and hiring a driver to take you to Bishkek through some of the most rugged, remote and beautiful mountains in the world. Weaving between glacier-filled valleys and sheer alpine cliffs in a white-knuckle inducing Volkswagen Bug with wings wasn’t my idea of fun—besides, I hate flying. So I chose the ground route.

Drivers making the trek over the mountains to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s capitol) congregate in a gravel parking lot full of rusted buses across from the main bazaar. Unable to cajole a single driver into making the trip over the mountains to Bishkek—each request was dismissed with a curt, “No, it’s too far!”—I broke for lunch around noon.

Super sized Bunsen burners topped with pots of bubbling broth and languorous noodles occupied stalls lining the bazaar. Blowing gently on a steaming pile of laghmam—a Central Asian staple of thick noodles in mutton broth—a deep voice boomed behind me.

“Ishmael,” he exclaimed.

Expecting a tout, I turned and found instead a leathery-faced, handsome Uzbek wheezing, “Taxi, Bishkek.” He caught his breath and pointed at the distant spires of the Ferghana Range.

“How much,” I asked? After a cursory bout of haggling we agreed on a price.

I trudged uphill with Ishmael along a narrow, tree-lined dirt lane. Walls surrounded the homes in the Persian fashion, his no different. The gate creaked open. Laboring over a washtub his wife smiled and rushed off towards the kitchen. She beckoned me to follow. Ishmael left in search of more passengers.

An hour later Ishmael returned with three strangers. Fatima was a striking, moon faced Uzbek woman with curious eyes, traveling from Andijan to Saint Petersburg to see her brother; Ilhom, a railway worker—“what railway?” I wondered silently—was returning home from a holiday with his elderly parents; and the Wrestler, a big brute of a man with no neck and fewer words never said what it was he did. His silent, brooding demeanor discouraged me from asking.

We darted through Osh’s crowded and decaying streets and soon pushed into the Ferghana Valley, skirting the mountains always to the East. A beat-up and weary old horse stood lonely by the roadside. Mule drawn carts, heavy with peasants in colorful dresses were followed by big steel milk canisters along the roadsides, targets for bored teens with stones. To the west, behind a smiling young boy dressed in white, grain fields spread out like a blanket of saffron.

After an hour on the road Ishmael parked between a restaurant and a small brook. We sat under an old sycamore tree, filled with Indian Mynas chattering in the branches like bored housewives. Leaves rustled like coffee beans falling into a can. Somewhere a mule brayed a stubborn lament.

I nibbled on my shashlyk—lamb kebab—. Ishmael and Fatima talked about Saint Petersburg and life before the Soviet Union collapsed.

“At least I didn’t have to travel to a foreign country to visit my brother? He wasn’t a foreigner then,” she said.

“But we make our own future now,” Ishmael replied.

“What future,” blurted Ilhom?

The table grew quiet. I sucked the last bit of meat off my kebab and tossed the bones to a skinny cat lurking under the table.

We piled back into the car and drove off. Many of the villages we passed felt abandoned, dusty. Others looked bucolic, Italianesque in the slanting light of late afternoon. Poplars lined flat gravel lanes. Grapevines infiltrated trellis-covered courtyards. ‘New’ mud-brick homes replaced old, crumbling Soviet-era housing.

The road into the mountains crossed a small tributary of the Syr Darya River, the ancient Jaxartes, where several young boys swam naked in the river. Shadows crawled across the valley floor.

The Volga crested a blind hill. Shimmering in the sun below lay Lake Toktu-gol, a large hydroelectric reservoir filling the Naryn River Gorge. It’s cool, marble-green waters powering the turbines that light up the night time Ferghana.

Withering heat blasted through the windows. Ishmael wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Fatima and Ilhom shuffled in their seats while the wrestler snored. I watched the passing panoply from the window.

Sage-colored brush dotted the chili-red soil. Jagged, snowcapped peaks grew on the horizon, indifferent to the whirring of cars on the road below. The few clouds that made it over the wall of mountains disappeared before my eyes.

And then dusk arrived, deep and pink, transforming clouds into mountains and mountains into clouds. Higher and higher into the Tien Shan the old Volga climbed. The silvery surface of Toktu-gol’s water faded into the night as the heat broke.

We stopped at a roadblock: my first passport check, now deep inside Kyrgyzstan. A cherubic young officer with a Mongol face and blue eyes waved us, AK-47 in hand, out of the car into a pitiful shack. Plaster peeled from walls surrounding a desk and stool, a single bulb clung tentatively to the ceiling. A teapot stood in the corner.

“Welcome to Kyrgyzstan,” he smiled, inspecting my passport. “Some tea?” he asked, “We don’t get many Americans here.”

I shot a pleading glance at Ishmael but he shook his head. “We’re in a hurry,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and walked off.

We plunged into the chill Central Asian night; a full moon glimmered above morphing the blackness into dreamy shadows. The shack receded, until only a pinhead sized point of light remained a thousand feet below in the valley. High above now in the Ala-bel Pass (10,443) a parade of yurts lined the roadside. Lights waved in the keening wind, beacons of conviviality selling kumys—that toxic nomad brew of fermented mare’s milk.

“Kumys,” the Wrestler roared, stabbing a forefinger the size of a Churchill cigar at the window. Electricity surged through the car.

“I want kumys!” he said, his golden teeth reflected in the dim-light.

Ishmael ground the Volga to a halt. The Wrestler leaped out of the car, ambling off towards a yurt like a lame hippo.

I stepped out into the wind. Faint but urgent haggling came from the yurt. Moonshine ricocheted off the mountaintops, a kaleidoscope of black and white dancing nervously across the lunarscape in front of me.

“Halfway,” I whispered and the wind carried the word back from where I came: the rich cities of the Silk Road, Samarkand and Bukhara; the empty Kizil Kum, Baku’s oily Caspian shore; Tbilisi’s schizophrenic architecture; rainy Batumi and bustling Trabzon; Istanbul, the Golden Horn, the last home of the wandering Turks.

And then my thoughts turned Eastward: a night in Naryn, across the Aat Bashy Range, over the Torugart Pass; down into East Turkestan and ye old Kashgar; towards the dunes of Dun-huang and the Jade Gate; Tibet, the Potala; Kathmandu, and India, the Crown Jewel.

Ishmael touched my shoulder. “We must go,” he said in a whisper.

Conquered by the great ships of human commerce, oceans are now but highways for material goods. The skies, once reserved for the imagination, are now full of metal tubes hurled across continents in time for the late night news. Travelers now arrive in hours—at most days—to places that once were remote and unattainable. Once a luxury only the wealthy, or the extremely (fool) hardy engaged in, traveling is now a bourgeois pursuit, commoditized and indistinguishable from tourism. I’m not arrogant enough to presume that what I’ve done is any different from (or better than) those who descend upon enclaves safe from the locals, full of amenities and bereft of any but the most prosaic of challenges—the occasional bout of diarrhea notwithstanding. Far too many real travelers have come before to indulge in that kind of fantasy.

But the underlying virtues of travel—and travel writing—have not changed. Satellites may have mapped the Earth’s undiscovered country but the human heart remains shrouded, its motives unexplained, most especially my own.

Why have I undertaken these journeys?

After fifteen years, thirty-five nations and several hundred thousand miles I’m no closer to an answer than when I began. What I do know, the central truth, as it were, is the troubling knowledge that I find more acceptance and fellowship with foreigners than I do at home surrounded by family and friends. This seems to me the most important question of my own travels.

At a minimum it informs much of why I travel, that I’m more comfortable, fulfilled and content when I am on the road. The peculiar angst I call ‘modernity’ seems not to sting quite so much when I’m moving from one place to another, over a cup of tea with a well-met stranger, stranded in deep reverie or just puzzling over some architectural oddity.

Tellingly, such moments of recognition, connections across a cultural chasm most will never have the opportunity to comprehend, matter more than anything I’ve done at home. Nothing measures up. Perhaps it’s all in the connection with my fellows that I find so addictive. Suddenly I’m no longer alone.

But a profound paradox is at work here. It’s a lonely pursuit, travel.

At moments I’ve met amazing people, like Misha, a small, proud man who drove me through the Zerafshan Valley around Samarkand. A Soviet-trained engineer now relegated to driving a taxi for the occasional tourist, Misha was a warehouse of stories, jokes and anecdotes. He entertained me with humorous antics, charmed me with his wit and his prodigious knowledge of “Glorious Samarkand,” as he called it. Translating for me when my Russian failed, indefatigable in his introductions, proudly showing off his home, his glorious city.

Once in Bombay I witnessed the saddest, most tragic suffering I’d ever seen. A half-mile walkway leads out to a Muslim shrine standing in the Arabian Sea. Waves lap onto a jetty filled with the discarded dregs of humanity; a hopeless boy missing an arm and leg crawls towards me; a covered woman, burns clearly visible on her outstretched hand—begs for a single rupee. Some of them huddle in twos and threes, unable to walk, open sores oozing pus, moaning. A nightmare scene awaiting an Indian Dickens.

At other times I’ve seen works of stupendous beauty, choked up, tearful, spellbound—if only I could hold on to the moment forever, explore just how precious, how close to the heart of mankind this place is. What unifies each scene is the essential loneliness of the experience, be it tragedy or transcendence. Each is transient and none can ever be fully shared with anyone else.

But the rewards, those can never be stolen. Recalled at a moments notice they are a salve, a poultice applied to the cruel banalities of modern life. At times like these I find comfort in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s lament for the traveler: “Is not our first thought to go on the road? The road is our source, our vault of treasures, our wealth. Only on the road does the [traveler] feel like himself, at home.”

Rarified mountain air pours in the windows. The Kumys sedates Ilhom and the Wrestler. I can feel his thunderous snores even now. Fatima sleeps. I doze fitfully.

Late in the night a bump in the road jolts me awake. No longer in the mountains, the Volga speeds down a straight road lined with kiosks selling strange products at an even stranger hour: fireworks, ramen noodles, vodka, cheap Chinese electronis; all proof Central Asia remains a trader’s paradise.

We arrive at my hotel around 2:30 AM.

Fatima gazes at me in a puzzled manner and grabs my arm as I pull my backpack from the trunk.

“Where will you go next?”

“India.”

“Why?”

I shrug my shoulders and reply, “Why not?”