The Road Beckons

Xunantunich's western friezeTomorrow morning I catch the southbound bus to Laredo at 900.

I’ll arrive in Laredo about 1145, walk across the border at International Bridge #1, take the city bus to the new primera classe bus station and catch the first available to Mexico City.

After that, who knows? I have to be in Belize on July 5th, which makes zipping across the Yucatan a tight schedule.

I’ll then be in Belize working on an archaeological dig for 25 days. I will leave August 1 for the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

And then, who knows?

I suspect you’ll be getting a boatload of posts on the ancient Mayans.

This is the best place to keep up with me while I am away.

True Detective

Y’all know I try to stick to the books, right? Of course, every now and then I get hooked on a television show. I have my personal favorites like Californication, Justified, Grimm (guilty pleasure) and The Wire, which I seem to watch over again at least every two years. On the flight home from Istanbul, about an hour and half before landing in Houston I tuned into HBO’s first episode of True Detective. I only got half of the first episode because we were beginning our initial descent, but I was hooked.

Yesterday afternoon at about 530 pm I completed the first season.

I needed close to 24 hours to process what I witnessed. I will not give anything away. You must watch this show. Period.


Although I won’t say anything about the plot, the character development of the show most reminds me of Dostoevskii’s greatest novel, “Crime and Punishment” in its ferocious darkness. Obsessively shining a light where none ever need be shone.

Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) was simply relentless. The point wasn’t the plot, because in the the end we all know Raskolnikov killed the old lady. The point was Raskolnikov’s soul and its consummate exploration. This is what True Detective did. And with eight episodes it had the rare luxury to explore the souls of two male leads.

I have no doubt that the first season or series of True Detective will go down as the best television series ever made. It’s better than House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Justified, Game of Thrones, Rome, The Wire, The Sopranos, Californication, Homeland, and Dexter plus anything else you care to throw at the TV Guide, combined. The acting is impossible to describe and it’s impossible to say in the end who does a better job: Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey. The psychic distance alone each actor has grown is testament in itself. Consider, Woody Harrelson began acting as the doofus barback in Cheers. Matthew McConaughey was the pretty boy for about twenty rom-coms in the 1990s-into the early aughts.

If they gave an Oscar for TV they would have to share it. Affecting and moving acting by both men.

And Michelle Monaghan is the emotional anchor of the entire series and for both men: talk about unsung acting jobs. Wow. Her’s was not a star’s role, but she made it one: complete and centered, the equal of both men.

The show is that good and that dark and that awful and that powerful and that mesmerizing and that uncontrollably shudder inducing. And more.

In fact, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not watch it.

Central American Photos

I’ll probably never get to finish writing the story of my adventure with Dad in Central America last year during the holidays. Sigh. Too much academic work. But, what I can do is present you with the last remaining photos from Tikal and Antigua, Guatemala, as I promised to do months ago.

Here is the entire set of Central American photos, all of them, including Tikal and Antigua, which I simply never got around to uploading, until now. Enjoy!

Decadent Anticipation

I realize as I sit here typing this is going to sound trivial and carping, like trite complaining. In all reality it probably is. But here goes.

Bahia Navidad

I travel a lot.

I traveled a lot before I got married and traveled some while I was married but travel was always a huge matter of conflict and it was just easier to not travel and not fight about it than it was to travel and fight about it afterwards. Maybe someday I will figure out why I married a woman who wanted to marry a nomad but wouldn’t let me travel? How did I let that happen? What’s that say about me?

But I digress.

Then I got divorced and moved back to San Antonio and promptly went to Central America for two weeks with my Father. Then I went to Joshua Tree for a week with a friend. I just returned from three and a half magnificent weeks in Central Asia with my Father. We’re talking about Antarctica over the holidays to see penguins. Yes, I am trying to catch up for a handful of missed years.

So, like I said, that’s a lot of travel.

But here’s the catch: I haven’t traveled alone since July 2009 when I went to the Mexican state of Jalisco, wherein I stayed at a little beach village called San Patricio/Melaque on the Bahia Navidad to be precise. And nearby, between drunken nights and memories of blowing conch shell horns on the beach and ceviche to die for I took up surfing in the Boca de Iguanas in the mornings. It was a divine three weeks, as I recall. Only late in the trip a friend showed up and the entire tenor of the trip changed. I only traveled with him a few days and then went home.

This leads to my complaint, if you want to call it that, I see it more as a recommendation or an endorsement: nothing beats traveling alone.

Absolutely nothing.Pelicans

It is rare and decadent. There is no one to please. No one to worry about. No one to keep me from doing what I want to do when I want to do it. No one to compromise with about this food or that, this place or that, nothing or anything. My only job is to live in the moment and like a dandelion seed go where the wind blows me. (I stole the dandelion line from someone by the way.)

And for the first time in five years I am going to travel alone.

I’m actually more excited that in three weeks I am going to get on a bus at the San Antonio bus station and ride to Mexico City and see a friend than I was about going to Central Asia.

After Mexico City I will make my way to Belize where I will participate in an archeological dig at Buena Vista and Xunantunich for twenty five days: no air conditioning, cold showers every morning and washing clothes by hand in the Mopan River old school-like. Up at five asleep at eight. Devouring every last drop of knowledge I possible can from my professors on the Maya and the practice of archeology.

After that I will meander–slowly–back to San Antonio by bus, but not before spending at least three days on the Pacific Coast surfing.
Colonias Returning Home From Work

No computer.

No smart phone.

No jealous woman back home demanding I Skype or wondering what the hell I am doing and why she hasn’t gotten a call, or a text or why so and so said something to me on Facebook. (No, really, I’m not bitter.)

Hell, I’ll probably leave the camera in the hotel room most of the time as well.

Nothing will come between me and the waves, except tequila at night and my pen and notepad, because I’ve learned writing by hand is where I find that train bound for glory.

It has been too long.

And I cannot wait much longer.

Peoples Of The Silk Road

My father likes to take photos of people, whereas I usually take photos of landscapes and architecture. Both are excellent ways of penetrating the veil of foreign lands, so to speak.

Last night Dad emailed me a deluge of photos and asked if I would upload them to Flickr. “Hell yes,” I told him.

Here they are. There are 90 new photos, mostly in chronological order from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul.

The full set is available here or at the photo above.

As always, enjoy!

Why Did The Aral Sea Die?

Why did the Aral Sea die, because it categorically did not have to?

Qara Qum Canal

Here’s the majority of the problem, the answer as it were: Turkmenistan chose to destroy it.

How? It’s the water shown in the photo above: it’s called the Qara Qum Canal.

It channels water from the Amu Darya (the classical Oxus) at Turkmenabat, along the border with Uzbekistan all the way across the Qara Qum Desert to Ashgabat, bleeding the Amu Darya dry, and still failing to slake the thirst of the most hideously gaudy cities planet earth. (Inferior only to Vegas on the vulgarity quotient.)

It carries 13 km³ of water away from the Amu Darya into the desert onwards to Ashgabat. Along its 1,375 kilometer route through the dry wastes of Turkmenistan it loses 50% of the water it siphons away from the Amu Darya due to evaporation. Staggeringly inefficient, as it is. Also preventable. 

The Turkmens chose a lifestyle and standard of living approaching the gauche opulence of a Persian Gulf despotism (not that American ecological choices are much better) and this is why the Aral Sea died.

Now, consider this: 50% of that whAral Sea: 1989-2008ich the Turkmen’s siphon from the Amu Darya evaporates, right?

Now, take Uzbekistan which gets the other 50% of the river.

Uzbekistan engages in another form of breathless stupidity: they grow cotton (a notorious water hog) and rice, yes rice, in the desert with Amu Darya water and their irrigation projects lose another 50% due to evaporation, which also is entirely preventable.

So, before the water even irrigates anything in Uzbekistan or reaches Ashgabat fully half the entire river is lost to piss-poor irrigation technology, technology that could have been upgraded in the 90s for a fraction of what it is now costing both countries in ecological damage due to the effects of the disappearance of the sea.

“What about Kazakhstan,” you ask?

Kazakhstan is the only nation that has done anything to save it’s portion of the Aral Sea. The Syr Darya (the classical Jaxartes) feeds the north of the Aral Sea. Several years ago the Kazakhs created realistic conservation policies and also built a dam to hold back the water from evaporating, thereby creating the Little Aral Sea. Yes, it’s something, but it’s still too little, too late.

This is the result of a human policy with global implications. The obvious question is what happens when the glaciers in the Pamirs, you know, those things up in the hills that feed the Amu Darya, disappear due to global warming?

I don’t know, exactly, but it will be bloody and brutal.

Airlines In America Are Now As Terrible As Airlines In Russia

Boarding A Flight in AshgabatLet me make this prefatory remark up front: I take absolutely no joy in writing this or in making these criticisms, but someone has to tell you how it really is. If you disagree, fine, but back your disagreement up with something more than a mindless assertion that “‘Murica is the best.” Why? Well, for starters, chances are I’ve forgotten about more of my travel experiences than you’ve ever had travel experiences. Second, I have observation and experience on my side. Third, well, do you really want to have a pissing match you’ll lose? Just trust me, I know what I am talking about.

I say this each time I am at IAH (Houston Intercontinental) airport: it’s a filthy pit. And I’ve seen some in my time. While I was waiting for my last flight to San Antonio (having flown from Istanbul to Munich to Houston) a man said in Spanish to his wife, “this airport is filthy.” I was embarrassed. But then I looked around even more closely. The paint on the walls was peeling, the blue carpet was filthy, the chairs were leaning at angles and the fabric was torn or stained. I expect this in an Uzbek airport or one in some other post-imperial shit hole. But in America, the so-called greatest, richest, most awesomest country in the entire galaxy?

We should be ashamed of shitty air travel infrastructure.

Second, American airlines are fast approaching the quality of Russian airlines. United, Delta and American are and should be a national disgrace. Turkish National Airlines is better than all three and there are many airlines in the world better than Turkish. The point is that our domestic airlines are pathetic and now equal post-Soviet Russian planes in decrepitude, discomfort and cost. The food is not much better, either. I now do everything I can to avoid flying American airlines internationally. They are that bad. Domestically? Hell, I will sit on a bus for ten hours to avoid a three hour flight and the subsequent TSA bullshit involved.

Oh, you don’t believe me when I say the quality is as terrible as Russian airlines? Well, have you ever flown on a Yak-40 from Bukhara to Tashkent? Or a Tupolev 154 from Amsterdam to Moscow? Or an Ilyushin-96 from Tashkent to Moscow? Well, I have and they aren’t much different than the crap planes Boeing is now making. Airbus Industries in Europe simply makes a better quality and comfort plane.

Added to original post and edited at 5:07 pm, June 9: As reader Rodd noted, accurately and fairly, on Facebook, “[I] take umbrage with you asserting that Boeing makes crappy, low quality airplanes. It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service, Sean Paul, not Boeing.”

My reply: That’s a fair criticism on your part to make of me but allow me to elaborate in a better manner. Why? Well, most Americans wouldn’t understand. They are trained by propaganda to believe that Russian planes just fall out of the sky, whereas in reality Russian planes are excellent. (So were there space stations, and apparently their rockets as good enough to shoot our satellites into the sky). The Tupolev 154, especially. It’s like a Volkswagen Bug of the sky. It never quits. However, the service and seating and food is terrible. So, Americans have this idea that Russian planes are terrible, when in reality, they are exactly as you describe, “It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service.” So, point taken. I should have communicated that better.

This should be a national disgrace and scandal.

Furthermore, I’ve crossed at least sixty international borders, passport control and customs posts. Only three nations are more difficult, time consuming, aggressively bureaucratic and rude (read: hostile) than the USA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. That’s quite a stand up list. Seriously, it was easier and less intrusive as an American getting into Iran than it is being an American citizen getting back into America. The ICE/TSA are a bad joke. Moreover, after comparing multiple international airports with the “best” American airports, which are really decrepit dumps, our US airports flat out resemble more and more the post-Soviet Russian airports and infrastructure I saw traveling in Russia in the late 90s and early 2000s. As my friend Alexi replied to my tweet on the subject, “Weird to look back and see the future, ain’t it?” No doubt.

But there’s more: it is always sad to come home to America and realize how far behind the rest of the world we are falling. I love my country and want to see it succeed. But what I see saddens me. Our decline is now accelerating. As I already said, our TSA/ICE security theatre is a grotesque farce compared to real security procedures in places like Europe. US security procedures resemble the bureaucratic heavy-handedness in places like Russia, Uzbekistan and Nepal before the revolution. And can someone explain to me what exactly the purpose of APC is? It seemed a redundant disaster that only aggravated citizens returning from abroad than any time saving measure. What’s worse is that if you are flying business class you get to go through the speedy line. Except, there are now so many elite award card holders it really makes no difference. The only difference is you don’t have to take your shoes or belt off. Lastly, you can apply for TSA pre-check to avoid all this. But it’s pricey.

Of course, less than 1/3 Americans have a passport so I don’t expect this to change. America will soon be a second class country. But in the scheme of time, comparing Asia to the US during my first trip to Korea in ’95, is there a difference? Back then South Korea, Japan and just a little Chinese infrastructure was better than US infrastructure. Port facilities, airports, roads, etc. but y’all know this. Here’s what you don’t know: today Singapore, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and about 1/4 of Chinese infrastructure is superior to that in the United States of America.


That means better than ours, by the way.

What’s worse is that the differential is now accelerating and we’re rapidly falling behind.

But hey, I’m just a pointy-headed academic. What the hell do I know about the real ‘Murica?

Last Photos from Istanbul

Here are the last 52 photos from Istanbul.

They speak for themselves.

The full set is here.

The beginning of this last batch begins here and moves backwards.


The Ghosts of A Great and Forgotten City

How does one express the feelings, the visceral swirl of emotions, when a dream comes true?

How does one describe a city that was once the glory of the world? Where all of the great medieval minds flocked, where Alexander walked, where Algebra was invented, where the algorithm was invented, where the concept of zero, or nothingness, was wedded with Arabic numerals to create the foundations of modern science?

Finally, a place utterly ravaged by the Mongols in 1221?

I don’t know.

But I have now seen it, and in its ruin, in the years of wear and erosion and desert winds and Siberian snows, Russian Czars and totalitarian dictators, it is still a place of profound ghosts. It may be deathly silent here, but Merv has much to say.

An immensely important name forgotten by the hustle and bustle of the modern world and a place to whom we all owe a great debt. And now, a place I have been so very lucky to have seen with my own eyes.

I hope you find something of all this in the photos because they do not do the mystery justice.


Crazy Like A Fox

Desert Fox

Desert fox at a watering hole in the Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan.

Yep, that sums me up. Crazy like a fox.

Here is the first set of Turkmenistan photos.

The full Silk Road set can be found here.

The start of this most recent set can be seen here and moving backwards as always.