Thursday, July 14, 2016

The President is Coming to Town

May 24, 2009
Preppin' for the Prez

A countrywide sports competition for teenagers who live in villages is taking place in Talas.  Opening ceremonies were last evening and the games begin today.  All week the word was the president of Kyrgyzstan would be here for the opening.  So, in preparation, many classes at the technical college and the university were canceled for the week so the students could make the stadium sparkle.  And it wasn't only the stadium.  Seems like everybody was out sweeping and picking up litter (a HUGE problem in our city).  Residents whitewashed walls and curbs and miracle of miracles, potholes were filled.  Guess when the mayor thinks the president is coming to town, the money for road repair magically appears.  It's a safe bet that without the sports games, they wouldn't have been.
The city is the cleanest I've ever seen it.  I'm thinking the last time it was this clean was the last time the president was rumored to be visiting. 

The opening ceremonies were pretty cool.  Each of the seven oblasts paraded their athletes past the crowd just like in the Olympics with Talas getting the loudest welcome, naturally.  There were singers and dancers dressed in traditional Kyrgyz costumes.  The few speeches we had to endure were short.  I was glad to see female athletes will be participating in volleyball. (This is such a male dominated culture that I would not have been surprised if there weren't any girls.)  I hope to get out to see some events before Wednesday when the games end.

And the president?  He sent his Minister of Sports instead.  Big letdown.  Really wanted to see him in person.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked much about politics in my emails, mostly because I figured if the Kyrgyz government really was reading them, I’d err on the side of caution. No sense calling the president a callous corrupt jerk, thereby ending my PC service with a comment everybody knew and most agreed with.

In the book I talk about the peoples' attitudes regarding their president and compare it to what I experienced in China.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My New Favorite City

June 21, 2009
Turkey Tidbits

--I was surprised to see women in traditional Muslim attire sitting in the park smoking cigarettes.  I also saw some younger women, traditionally dressed, cuddlin' and smoochin' with their boyfriends/husbands as they sat on park benches.

--Seems like everybody—at least everybody I encountered over the course of two weeks—could converse in English to a certain extent.  Many are fluent.  Now, since I spent most of my time where tourists typically stay, that could be expected.  But, I also walked in non-tourist neighborhoods and talked to shop keepers.  Most of them spoke English, too.  And since there are myriad English language schools in Istanbul, there has to be a desire for the Turks to learn it.  Someone told me his version of why this is.

“Turkey exports goods to many countries.  Clothes, shoes, carpets, food products.  If the sales person has customers in China, France, Russia and Germany, for example, the odds are low that they will be conversant in all those languages.  So, the language they could all have in common is English, the universal language for business.  I was told that many Turkish companies foot the bill for their employees to take lessons.” 

--We ran into 4 volunteers from Kyrgyzstan.  I also saw many young Americans traveling in groups of 3 or 4.  I have a feeling many of them were PC Volunteers from other Central Asian or Eastern European countries.  Turkey is centrally located and easy to visit.  You buy your 90-day, multiple entry visa at the Istanbul airport for $20.  How much easier can it get?

--Turkey is notorious for credit card fraud.  I had to email Citibank with the dates of my stay so they wouldn't automatically close down my debit card.  Many banks, if they don't know you'll be in Turkey, will do just that if they see a transaction from there.  I had to use an ATM twice and because there are Citibanks in Istanbul, I knew I'd have no problems.

--I don't mind growing old.  Honestly, I don't.  But, I don't need to be reminded of it.  Three times I was asked if X was my son.  Excuse me?!

--I never thought I had a universal look, but perhaps I was mistaken.  Three times I was approached by salesmen with “Habla Espanol?”  Two guys asked me if I spoke English.  I was also taken for Australian and Greek.  The best one though, was the guy who stopped his car to ask me for directions.  He asked in Turkish.  

Istanbul. The city on two continents. Something about the European side reminded me of Manhattan. Maybe it was all the yellow cabs, I don’t know, but something about it, the energy, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, well, I simply fell in love. After three days of soaking up as much of the city as I could, the sights, the food and talking to the people, I had found a new post-Peace Corps “top of the list” city. Of course, I knew more research needed to be done, so I did it.
In the book: why Istanbul was a great city to visit, but not where I wanted to teach.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Almost Showtime!

February 23, 2009

Radio Serial Update

For those of you who have been following my exploits since last year, you'll recall one of my secondary projects was to write a radio serial.  I found four students willing to undertake the project with me.  It has taken a while, but I'm proud to say the first episode is “in the can” or, I should say, “on the disk.”  I heard it today and although I didn't understand much because it's in Russian, the voices sounded great and the special effects were nicely done.  A couple of script adjustments had to be made because of language, but nothing that altered the intent of the script.  For instance, I made a joke about a notebook (one you write notes in) and a notebook (laptop computer).  But, it had to be changed because “notebook” as a computer doesn't translate the same in Russian.  No one would get the joke. 

What makes this project so satisfying, aside from the fact that everyone is nice as can be, is that most of the people involved are teenagers. The voice of the 43 year-old father is 15.  The 21 year old daughter is 14.  And they sound fabulous.  I've been told they really liked the script and love their characters.  And it didn't take them long to start behaving like actors.  They've already started making demands.  The actress who reads the role of the mother wants to have an affair. Actors are the same the world over.  :-)

The 2nd episode has been written and is currently being translated.  I'm in the process of writing the third.  School resumes tomorrow after a two month break, so hopefully my student writers will be back on the job.  The station wants six episodes recorded before they put them on the air. They are also going to produce a “making of” show, which should be very interesting. 

The radio serial we created and produced at the local community radio station defined my Peace Corps experience. Not surprisingly, probably, because it involved playwriting. It was a true collaboration with a group of eager locals who were as dedicated as me to make “Kok Asman” a worthy project. We all expressed our opinions on topics and changes to the scripts. I recall only a couple of times when I had to override their suggestions, mostly because they, the actors, thought more in movie mode than radio drama. Their ideas would have been better off filmed than broadcast on the radio.

In the book I give all the background on the family in "Kok Asman," episode topics and some information on the "making of" project.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My Peter Finch "Network" Email

February 21, 2009

One (fill in the blank) American

I couldn't find just one word that succinctly fit the title for this entry.  Some that came to mind were disappointed, pissed, jaded, cynical, fed-up, expatriated.  I'm definitely angry, but that's such a futile emotion when dealing with the US government that I must let it go.  I think, no, I know my perspective of our (not so) great country has been significantly altered (and may I say I've been enlightened) by the views of non-Americans.  They are not all Kyrgyz, either.  While most have been Central Asians, I've also talked to Germans, Australians, Russians and a couple of Brits.  They all gave me insights into America that I had not seen.

If you didn't take five minutes to read the article I sent you the other day, you should.  It should come as no surprise that even a money-hungry corrupt government like this one, after so many broken promises, finally said to our military, “Get the hell outa here!”  We are so full of bullshit when we want something and actually always have been. It started with “all men are created equal” and went downhill from there.  All our talk about protection of human rights and the installation of democracy the world over is unadulterated crap!!!  All we really care about is what is best for American interests, and those mostly concern commerce.  I'm not basing this rant on a single newspaper column.  Or the killing of an innocent Kyrgyz civilian.  I am also reading one of the most fascinating, compelling and utterly disturbing books of my lifetime, “A Problem From Hell:  America and the Age of Genocide.”  Many of you are probably familiar with it as it won the Pulitzer (published 2002).  Samantha Power chronicles how the United States (and many other “democracies”) stood by and watched genocide being committed throughout the 20th Century, beginning with the Armenians by the Turks in 1915.  This was followed by the Holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Hussein trying to erase the Kurds in Iraq, The Serbs, Rwanda and now Sudan.  In every case our government had a political reason (or several) for not getting involved.  Example:  When Iraq was killing Kurds, the state of Kansas was shipping like a million tons of wheat to Saddam.  Yup, we were feeding the army while they were committing genocide.  Nice.  And why were we playing nice with a maniac?  Because we both hated Iran.  Strategic interests aside, how can we, as the biggest brute on the block, sit idly by and watch groups of peoples being eradicated?  History tells us that as long as it wasn't Americans gettin' whacked, who cared?  We ain't gonna lose soldiers if we don't stand to lose something really valuable.  Like access to cheap oil.  Oh, so that's why we came to the aid of Kuwait.  But, never fear, we are always there after the fact to rebuild.  Of course, we are. There's money to be made in reconstruction.  Lots of it.  And you can see we did squat under both republican and democrat presidents to make lives better in those countries, so that made no difference, except to some construction companies' bottom line.  Then for some silly reason I watched “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”  I need say nothing about how we screwed the Native American.  All I'm saying is yeah, America has many positives, but “all that glitters is not gold.”

I can imagine some of your reactions.  Michael's got too much free time over there.  Eating horse meat has made him crazy. Actually, I prefer to think I'm becoming a better thinker and decision maker, but that could be the horse meat talking.  Now, I realize there are dozens of countries worse than America in which to live.  Like, I'd hate to have been stuck in Zimbabwe the past 20 years, but I'm certain there are better places, too.  Places where governmental deception, duplicity and lack of diplomacy aren't the first words people use to describe their country.  And I won't mind searching until I find one of them.

Hey, KP, wanna buy a co-op?

No book I have read, before or since, touched me like the accounts of the genocides. My unfiltered emotion leaped off the page. Eight years of Bush 2 angered me immensely. I eagerly accepted the challenge of defending US citizens to foreigners; I had no defense for the government. The genocide book lit a fuse and there was no way to extinguish it. My feelings had to be expressed.

Also in the book: more on why I became disillusioned and no longer want to live in the US. Ever.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Sentence That Describes Me Well

February 15, 2009

Words to Live By

I'm a fairly avid reader and over the years, while enjoying one of my favorite pastimes, I have been searching for words that I feel best describe me.  You know, how I've lived, why I do what I do, why I have the values and philosophies I do, etc.  I've looked in Shakespeare, self-help books, cookbooks, you name it.  Some seem to be a good fit at first glance, but further inspection (introspection may be a better word) deems them inadequate.  I think the major pitfall in assigning a specific quote or sentence to definitively describe us as beings—if it can, in fact, be done to any degree of accuracy and long term personal satisfaction—lies in over-romanticizing who we believe ourselves to be.  Or would like others to see us.  So, although I believe I've found the words that best fit me, they are only my truth as I see myself.   

I found “my” sentence while reading a novel by Chingis Aitmatov, the best known Kyrgyz writer to date.  He is held in god-like esteem in this country, even more so since his death in early 2008 at the age of 79.  He's a fabulous novelist.  The three stories I read centered on peasant life in Kyrgyzstan during communist times and all took place in and near the village where he was raised in western Kyrgyzstan, close to the Kazakh border.  I don't know if these words are his or he borrowed them from someone for his book, but as soon as I read them, I said aloud, “That's me.”

I like the sentence because it certainly describes my writing.  Early on, people asked why this white guy had mostly black characters in his plays.  And does he think he knows them well enough to write them with any authenticity?  Rather than give into the criticism, I stayed true to me heart and wrote what I felt.  I also feel it hits at the core of why I've made the decisions and moves I have in my life.  Now, I realize this sentence may sound to some like it should be ascribed to more heroic figures than myself and I risk being chided, accused of having delusions of grandeur or totally dismissed.  Maybe, if I were on the outside looking in, I would think similar thoughts.  But, I'm not, so I don't.  So, without further ado or explanation, here are my words which I feel I have lived by:

Courage and Risk are born of the Same Mother.

Emotion has always determined what lay ahead for me in life. Well, since I graduated from college, anyway. When a change enters my consciousness, a long drawn out thought process isn’t invited to the mental discussion. 

In the book: more about the risk taking life I've led.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Winter Camp

February 12, 2009

Winter Camp

I spent the week of February 2nd with 18 vivacious 9th Form students from School #9 in Talas.  (See photo)  In an effort to keep us busy during the two-month winter break, Peace Corps secured grant money from PEPFAR, President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (or something close to that).  It's about the only good thing I can think of W doing in 8 years.  Anyway, along with my friend Gauhar (the young lady on the far left) and with the support of the school director (older woman, far left), we held a workshop covering HIV/AIDS prevention and life skills.  Two women from the local chapter of the Red Cross came one morning to give a presentation.  The other mornings we discussed self-esteem, time management, bride kidnapping, the 5 Languages of Love and decision making.  We ended each day with a one-hour English lesson.  Oh, and I also made sure our grant money included a hot lunch each day.  A few of the girls spoke English, and the rest spoke Kyrgyz.  Gauhar, who speaks English as well as anybody I've met here, did a great job as my translator.  Even though I know these young ladies have a better handle on life skills and safe sexual practices, I won't be here to see the results.  But, their friends and family will be and that's what really matters.

In the book: more details about the camp, a profile of Gauhar and her family and why our friendship didn't last (it wasn't our decision).

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Politics of War - The Afghan War

February 6, 2009

The Controversial US Air Base in Kyrgyzstan

Here's a story from the New York Times about the country where I'm
living right now.
Dispute Mounts Over Key U.S. Base in Kyrgyzstan
Published: February 4, 2009
MOSCOW — A day after the president of Kyrgyzstan announced plans to
close a key U.S. military base in his country, potentially
jeopardizing NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, American diplomats and
military officials in the region said Wednesday the base was still
operating and negotiations on its future were continuing.
Enlarge This Image
Vyacheslav Oseledko/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An American at an entrance to the air base in Manas, which
Kyrgyzstan's president said Tuesday he would order shut.

But the Kyrgyz government said it has already approved a law to end
its cooperation with Washington, arguing that the American mission in
Afghanistan has outlasted its original goals. It said it had decided
to shut the base because Afghanistan has a stable government and the
terrorist threat has been removed. It also said NATO air strikes have
caused an unacceptable rise in civilian casualties.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the decision to close the
facility on Tuesday during a visit to Moscow to seek financial
support. The American base at Manas has served as an air hub and
refueling and transit point for NATO efforts in Afghanistan, and U.S.
officials have several times intervened when Kyrgyz officials
considered shutting it.
In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, the capital
of Kyrgyzstan, said: "We have been in touch with Kyrgyz authorities on
the future of Manas air base. These discussions will continue."
"At this point we have not received formal notification of a decision
by Kyrgyzstan to close the base," the statement said.
Maj. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for the Manas base, said in a
statement on Wednesday: "Until we have been directed to adjust course,
we are going to continue to perform our mission here. The aerial
refueling mission, the tankers that we fly to Afghanistan have been
flying today, and coalition personnel processing in and out of
Afghanistan are continuing to pass through Manas."
Mr. Bakiyev arrived in Moscow under pressure to ease economic troubles
in Kyrgyzstan, which is heavily in debt to Russia and dependent on
remittances from migrant workers. President Dmitri A. Medvedev said
Russia would extend a $2 billion loan and $150 million in aid to
Kyrgyzstan, which Mr. Bakiyev hailed as "serious and important
At a press conference, Mr. Bakiyev said the U.S. had not paid
Kyrgyzstan enough in return for the use of the base — and expressed
anger over a 2006 case in which an American serviceman shot and killed
a Kyrgyz truck driver on the base. The American left the country,
against official protest.
"How can we speak of independence and sovereignty if we cannot enforce
the law on the territory of our own country?" he said, at a press
conference. "All this has given rise to a negative attitude to the
base in Manas. And that is why the government has made such a
Mr. Bakiyev's announcement represented a blunt challenge to President
Obama's highest foreign policy priority: the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has also been seen as a jumping-off point for cooperation
between the United States and Russia, which is wary of the spread of
Islamic extremism.
"It's an extremely serious point, because the premise of American
policy is that there is a common interest here," said Stephen
Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
which is based in New York. "If they're trying to tell us otherwise,
that message will get through."
The question of supply lines to NATO and American forces in
Afghanistan has become increasingly acute with attacks on the
centuries-old route from Pakistan over the Khyber Pass.
On Tuesday, Taliban militants blew up a bridge, forcing the suspension
of road shipments. According to The Associated Press on Wednesday,
militants then torched 10 trucks stranded in Pakistan as a result of
the destruction of the bridge.
The uncertainties surrounding the supply lines has added urgency to
American and NATO efforts to secure alternative supply lines through
Central Asia.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, on Tuesday called the
Manas facility in Kyrgyzstan "a hugely important" air base for the
United States.
During negotiations this summer, State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack said the U.S. would pay more than $150 million in assistance
and compensation for the base. At the time, a government statement
said the United States had contributed more than $850 million to
support democracy, economic development, aid projects and security in
the Kyrgyz Republic since its independence from the Soviet Union.
NATO's special representative to the area, Robert Simmons, spent
Monday and Tuesday meeting with officials in Bishkek, telling
reporters the site was "vital."

At the press conference, Mr. Bakiyev said Washington had ignored
requests for more money.
"Eight years have passed," he said. "We have repeatedly raised with
the United States the matter of economic compensation for the
existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood."
The base was opened in 2001 with Moscow's blessing, but Russian
leaders were increasingly irritated by the continuing presence of
American troops there. It was not clear whether Russian officials had
pressed Bishkek to end the agreement.
To Russians, the longstanding U.S. presence at Manas suggested
ambitions "to strengthen its position in this region" — against
Moscow's and Beijing's interests, said Andronik Migranyan, an analyst
at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, a Russian think-tank
based in New York.
"The American government is involved in many things that Russia does
not like, and this is something of a bargaining chip," he said.
Mr. Migranyan said friction over the air base will "become a
serious impediment to Russian-American relations" if Mr. Obama follows
through on his plans to beef up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He
added, however, that there was likely room to negotiate.
"If President Obama halts the construction of elements of a missile
defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland; if there are broader
discussions on global security, if negotiations start on START I; and
many other issues, then Russia will support the United States in
Afghanistan," he said.
Kyrgyzstan's close relations with the United States have long
unsettled Russia and China, which both have military interests in the
In 2005, the country appeared to move further into Washington's orbit
after a popular uprising, supported in part by the United States,
toppled the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government of Askar
A. Akayev, sending the president fleeing across the border. The
bloodless coup was part of a wave of popular revolts, known as colored
revolutions, that remain a source of anger and suspicion among Russian
officials, who consider them Washington-hatched schemes meant to
undermine Russia's influence in the region.
Similar uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine ushered in governments that
quickly sought to shut out Moscow's influence in favor of stronger
ties with the West. Kyrgyzstan, however, has often sought to strike a
balance among Washington, Moscow and Beijing. The government has
allowed Russia to maintain a military base on Kyrgyz soil and is a
member, along with China, Russia and three other Central Asian
countries, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security
Upon his election in 2005, Mr. Bakiyev vowed to pursue an independent
foreign policy, saying that Kyrgyzstan would not be "a place for the
fulfillment of someone else's geopolitical interests."

Alan Cowell contributed from London.

 I knew almost nothing about the Manas Air Base (MAB) until April 2010 when it became my home for a few weeks. That’s where the Peace Corps stashed us after the revolution that overthrew the government. Much more on that later in the book.

MAB was a golden goose for President Bakiyev.

Also in the book: more on the corrupt family of President Bakiyev and a link to an article about an American who somehow secured a $3 billion contract at the airbase.