Monday, May 6, 2013

The Flame Towers of Baku

Azerbaijan with Capital of Baku on the Caspian Sea

I have just completed a very enjoyable week in Baku, Azerbaijan, a well-off former soviet republic which has both oil and natural gas. On Saturday afternoon an Azeri colleague and her family gave me a personal tour of  Baku's beautiful old city which stems from the 13th Century.  The government has also created a very nice harbor area with a long promenade, excellent local and international restaurants and playgrounds for the children which are heavily frequented by the citizenry in the evenings and on weekends.

Below are some pictures and links related to Baku and Azerbaijan:

Baku - Old City Wal

Mosque in Old City
At Old City Mosque

After my tour of Baku's Old City, my guides drove me to a small village on the banks of the Caspian Sea where we had a wonderful fish dinner.  While the Caspian is quite polluted near the shores where most of the oil rigs are, it is much less so in the middle where the fish are caught.

After dinner we returned to Baku and walked through a memorial park that looks down over the harbor. This area contains three very modern high rise buildings that locals call the "Flame Towers." They are lit at night with constantly changing patterns including bright flames which makes it appear as if they are on fire.  I was mesmerized by them every evening from my room at the Marriott. Below is a youtube video link on the Flame Towers followed by a couple of personal photos:

Baku Flame Towers

View from Marriott Hotel Room: Flame towers in blue, Hilton hotel in foreground with stripes

Baku's eternal flame (as long as the gas doesn't run out)
Flame Towers and Harbor from Marriott during the day

While in Baku I have had many discussions about religion and especially Islam.  One Azeri laughingly said that one of the advantages of having been under the old Soviet system was that religious Islam was suppressed by the Russians and that the people are much better off as a result.  Most are very happy that there is no state religion or talk of Sharia in Azerbaijan and that Islam doesn't completely dominate all aspects of their lives like it does in many Arab countries. 

I have really enjoyed the very tolerant Muslim culture in Baku.  Most Azeris are Shia Muslim who follow most of the colorful Muslim traditions, but do so without the fanaticism often experienced in the Middle East.  I have only seen a couple of women with covered faces  and only a small percentage of women have even their hair covered.  Few Azeris go to the mosque on Fridays even though there are several beautiful ones in Baku. The call to prayer, often shrill in other countries, is toned down and only comes from a limited number of minarets.  When it comes to enjoying a glass of beer or wine in public, Baku is more liberal than my home town of Salt Lake City.  It is more like the wonderful beer gardens of Germany. Below is an interesting article on Azerbaijan's secular version of Islam.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tbilisi's Historic Center

This week I'm in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, also called Tiflis.  I was here eight years ago and Tbilisi's Old Town had undergone a remarkable transformation since then. While it still reflects its long period under Soviet rule, many historic buildings have been restored and the city has a very pleasant pedestrian zone with many lovely outdoor cafes, restaurants and bars. On my last visit, the city was being spruced up for an impending visit by George W. Bush.  And the city now has a President George Bush Street (  Do you know any US cities that have streets named after George W. Bush?   

I'm feeling lazy and won't write much on Tbilisi in this blog. But I will include several of my photos and provide a few links at the bottom for anyone who might be interested in post-soviet Georgia or in Georgian history and culture.

Map of Georgia showing the capital Tbilisi
Restaurant: "KGB - Still Watching You"
Cute Canopy on an Ethnic  Restaurant

One of Many Orthodox Churches

Tbilisi Synagogue
Mosque near City Baths 

Statue of St. George with Church in background

Old fascade and porches under renovation

Produce shop

VIP Hotel, Tbilisi

View from Old Town across the Mtkvari River
Tbilisi Baths
Houses on hillside leading up to Castle
Restaurant near Mtkvari River
Souvenir Shop
Stelzer Haus German Restaurant 

View from Mtkvari Bridge Towards Old Town
Cock of the Walk

Interesting Door on a Night Club

Old House With Classic Tbilisi Balcony on City Wall

Folk Dancer Sculpture

Office of the Georgian Orthodox Prelate

Billboard for an Art Exhibit
Old Georgian Architecture With Typical Balcony

In Front of a Tourist Shop

Pedestrian Zone with Restaurants

That's the end of my photos and here are a few links on the Republic of Georgia, Georgian History and Tbilisi.

Final note:  During my stay I had conversations with several Georgians.  When I asked those over 40 if they yearned for the old soviet days, without exception they said yes. I was very surprised and when I asked why, they typically said that life was simplier then with less worries, that people were closer and more friendly, and that the youth have become more aggressive and materialistic. In other words they seem to have liked the Nanny state and miss it.  I don't quite know what to take from this but I found it interesting.  I also have the impression that younger Georgians don't necessarily agree with the older ones.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Kosovo's Valley of Death

Map of Kosovo

Greetings from Pristina, Kosovo. Yesterday I visited nearby Gazimestan, which is Serbo-Croatian for "Place of Heros" (  In 1953 a monument was built at Gazimestan to commemorate the 1389 "Battle of Blackbird Field" also known as "the Battle of Kosovo" ( which was primarily waged between the Serbs and the Ottoman Turks.  In 1989 this monument served as the venue for a speech by Serbian President Slobodan Milošević to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the battle.  The speech preceded a violent surge in ethnic tension prior to the break up of Yugoslavia.

Gazimestan Monument
 The following inscription on the Monument is know as the Kosovo Curse and is attributed to Serbian Orthodox Saint and Martyr, Prince Lazar:

"Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth
and of Serb blood and heritage
and comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
may he never have the progeny his heart desires
neither son nor daughter.
May nothing grow that his hand sows,
neither dark wine nor white wheat.
And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages!"

Here is a bizarre video version of the curse followed by an analysis of the curse's meaning!

In a sense, the Kosovo Curse is real. The Kosovars, primarily ethnic Albanian Muslims, have had the historical misfortune of living among the repressive and oft-waring factions of Muslim Turkey, Orthodox Christian Serbia, the Catholic Hapsburg Empire and Stalinist Albania.  While Tito kept his thumb on the powder keg known as Yugoslavia for many years, the keg burst with his death and there has been almost continuous friction since. The most recent Kosovo War began in 1998 when Kosovars, who are 90 percent Muslim, declared themselves independent from the Serbian Government  in Belgrade and founded the Republic of Kosovo.

This 1998 Vanity Fair article describes the brutality of the Serbian response:

Due to NATO intervention, the Republic of Kosovo continues and is now recognized as an independent country by the US, NATO countries and a hand full of others.  Serbia, Russia and China do not recognize an independent Kosovo. The US has a provisional embassy in Pristina and will begin the construction of a new Embassy in 2014. The following links provide information on the NATO role in this war, on the new Republic of Kosovo and on the extent of its diplomatic recognition. 

Here is some information on Pristina, Kosovo's capital city.

And to end this, here is a photo I took of  the Bill Clinton statue on Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina, which recognizes his role in Kosovo Independence.  He gave a speech at its unveiling in 2009.

Bill Clinton Statue in Pristina, Kosovo

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nouakchott has great baguettes

This past Saturday I arrived at Nouakchott Airport about midnight.  I had gotten up at 3 a.m. that morning in Dakar to catch a three-hour flight North to Casablanca.  After an 11-hour layover at Casablanca Airport, I flew back South 3 hours to Nouakchott.  Nouakchott is only about an hour away from Dakar but there are currently no dependable airlines flying between the two cities.

As I entered the arrivals terminal the chaos had started.  People were already trying to jump the long queues, with the men usually pushing their women up front.  In the very tradition-bound country, women get priority when the men want to give it to them, usually only when a man has something to gain.  The embassy expediter that was supposed to meet me to circumvent all this was nowhere in sight, so I was left to my own devices.  When a guy tried to crowd in from the side, I blocked him with my carry-on.  And as I got close to the immigration desk, I put my elbow on the ledge in front of him, preventing his last attempt to get ahead of me.  I was very proud of myself as he really seemed to think he could bluff an old American.  He moved over and went to try another line. 

Claiming my luggage was the next hurdle.  At least 50 porter wannabes were trying to catch my attention.  I got my own bag and headed for the entrance.  Now here is where I really needed the expediter because he was also supposed to drive me to my hotel.  What seemed like hundreds of people were yelling at me, asking if I needed a taxi.  The exchange office was closed so I had no local Ouguiya and nothing less than a $20 bill.  It is tough to negotiate a good price when one only has big bills.  At this point I had no choice but to decide on a taxi, but how?  I took a deep breath, walked into the crowd and pointed at the first respectable looking guy I saw.  He grabbed my roller board and told me to follow.  When I got to the curb I found that he was only an agent for a driver, probably older than myself, with a run down taxi, which was already pulling up to load my bags.   It was a 70s vintage Toyota with an engine that barely ran, no seat belts and an extremely dirty windshield. I hesitatingly got in, and after agreeing to an exorbitant fare of $20, just to get out of there, we were on our way.  I asked him if he could turn on his windshield washer, which he did.  However it smeared the dirt and made the visibility worse. We both bent down to peer through a small clear area just above the dashboard.  As we headed out of the airport, the traffic was coming from all sides. The rule of the road was whoever got their first had the right-of-way and the driver frequently slammed on squeaky brakes to avoid a collision. 

My principal contact in Nouakchott had informed me by email that I had a reservation at the Atlantic B&B.  The driver had never heard of it but said he thought he knew where it might be!  After the 15-minute ride of my life, he pulled up in front a darkened building and said he thought this was probably it.  I got out and stared up at the building to see if it had a name.  A guard woke up and came out to see what I wanted.  I asked him if this was the Atlantic B&B.  He nodded yes and as I got closer I could see that it was the Hotel Atlantico.  We knocked on the door and someone came from inside to unlock it and turn on a light.   When I asked the large African man if this was the Atlantic B&B, he smiled at me broadly and in very good English, said hello "Mr. Paul."  Very relieved I went into the hotel for a very warm welcome and was led to a clean and comfortable, if spartan room, with working  a/c, TV, Internet and shower as well as a vase of roses on the nightstand.  The bed was comfortable and I slept like a log.    

The following day was Sunday and I had expected to work at the embassy because this Muslim country follows a Friday/Saturday weekend.   When I called the embassy to inquire when a car could pick me up, the Marine on duty told me that the embassy was closed because they were celebrating President’s Day so that the employees could have a three-day weekend like Americans get in the U.S.

Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, is a stark, dusty desert outpost on the edge of the Sahara.  I'm told that sand dunes often shift into the city covering roads and streets which for the most part are unpaved. Driving is chaotic and crowded with handicapped beggars sitting in the middle of the streets reaching towards the car windows on both sides.  Camels and donkeys are also common along the roads.  The city is on the Atlantic and it's biggest tourist draw is probably the fish market. Expats and diplomats can also visit nice beaches on the weekends but there are few amenities so they usually have to take a lot with them. Most of the city's buildings are single story and with the dirt roads, appear much like early towns  of the American West.  The people are a mix of Sub-Saharan African and Tuareg tribes with small French, Arab and Lebanese communities controlling much of the country's commerce.

Map of Mauritania

Last year CNN ran a program which claimed that Mauritania is the world's last stronghold of slavery, with 10 to 20 percent of the population being held as slaves.  Here is a link with pictures:

Some social scientists have protested the program's use of the term slavery, indicating it is more a form of racism with one people considering itself superior to another and trying to enforce this superiority.  This seems to me like splitting hairs.

The baguettes in Nouakchott really are good – among the best I’ve had.  A remnant of French colonialism is that the Africans in these countries love fresh baguettes and whatever other French food they can get.   The Africans really should be eating something a little more nutritious but baguettes certainly do taste good, especially with lots of butter. The best restaurants in Nouakchott are also French but since last year, owners have had to absorb a major financial hit because the Mauritanian Government cracked down on the importation and use of alcohol.  According to rumor the decision was because a member of the ruling family was involved in a serious car accident while drunk.  Drinks are still allowed after sundown in two restaurants catering almost exclusively to French and European expats who expect to be able to drink wine with their dinner.

Here are a few more links on Mauritania:

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bissau: Today's African Adventure

This morning I got up at 3 a.m. at my Praia hotel to catch a one-hour Cape Verde Airlines flight to Dakar, scheduled to depart at 5:30.   When I arrived at the Airport I was informed that the flight had been delayed until 7:30.  When boarding started at 7, an announcement came that we would overfly Dakar and make a stop in Bissau before flying back to Dakar.  Apparently due to under bookings on two flights, they consolidated them into one, taking passengers to both Bissau and Dakar.

The landing and an hour layover in the capital of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony, was very interesting.  The countryside has incredible rivers and wetland with a few large Portuguese farm estates, dispersed through the area. The runway was lined on both sides with dozens of the large red termite hills often seen in Africa.  I hadn’t seen any for several years and again found them fascinating.

Red Termite Mounds Near Bissau Airport Runway

 Hanging near the entrance to the Bissau Airport was a large sign welcoming  “his Excellency Ike Ekweremadu.” I had no idea who he was but just googled and found that he is the deputy leader of the Nigerian National Senate.  About 15 minutes after we landed, an unmarked turbojet arrived with approximately 50 well-dressed African dignitaries .  Next to the airport was a pretty little Catholic church and it looked to me that an important wedding was getting ready to take place there.

As we were getting ready to take off again, a regional State Department officer who was on the same flight, pointed to a decaying Learjet that was sitting on the edge of the tarmac.  He told me that  a couple of years ago, it had been forced down during an unauthorized flight through Bissau’s airspace.  He said that it had been filled with cocaine which was confiscated by the Bissau police and which disappeared into the unknown shortly thereafter.  No one talks about what happened to the pilot and crew and no one has ever returned to claim the plane.  I finally arrived in Dakar around noon.

I continue on to Nouakchott early tomorrow morning and I'm sure another great African adventure awaits me there.  


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cape Verde: Cesaria Evora and Petit Pays

I am currently in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, a small island nation and former Portuguese colony off the West African Coast. Senegal and Mauritania are it's closest neighbors. It has just over half a million people spread across approximately 10 islands with a population mix of Portuguese and various African peoples speaking Portuguese and Criollo.  Praia is a pretty little city of about 125,000 which has attractive Portuguese-style buildings, very clean streets, a central square and an entire pedestrian walking zone with cars denied access.  Such zones are common in Europe but it is the first one I've seen in Africa.

Cape Verde has long been a desirable tourist destination for the Portuguese with its European market now expanding.  The Hilton Hotel chain recently broke ground for a resort on Sal Island.  The country has a moderate, semi-arid climate with gorgeous flowers and palms as indicated in the following picture which I took at my hotel in Praia.

Hotel Pestana Tropico in Praia

Here is a map followed by several information links on the country:

Cape Verde with Praia, its capital

 I have wanted to visit Cape Verde for at least 20 years, every since I first heard Cesaria Evora's haunting song Petit Pays (little country).  Her melancholic voice and beautiful rhythms immediately caught my ear and she has become one of favorites.  I own a couple of her CD's and I love the mood her music sets. Before passing away a couple of years ago she became an icon in the genre of Edith Piaf, often with booze or cigarettes in hand while she performed.  She sang primarily in her native Criollo language, but also in Portuguese and French.  Although I'm not fond of smoke and boozed-filled rooms, much of the music that comes out of this milieu is outstanding and I especially like it late at night.  If you haven't heard Cesaria before, listen to the following and I'm sure you will be smitten too. The third link contains a fantastic instrumental introduction to an entire Erova concert.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Gambia, Africa's Smallest Country

If asked to name the smallest country in Africa, most people would not be able to. They might guess Swaziland or Lesotho but they would be wrong.  It is "The Gambia" which stretches along The Gambia River, surrounded on three sides by Senegal on the West African Bulge. Some of the island nations surrounding Africa are smaller but it is the smallest on the African mainland. Today I made a short airport stop in Banjul, the country's capital and caught glimpses of pretty much the entire country as we descended.

Not exactly a household name, The Gambia has a tragic but interesting history.  It is a relic of the Slave Trade with Portuguese, British, Americans, Arabs and even Africans buying and selling slaves here.  It has a population of about 1.2 million living on slightly more 11,000 square meters.  The country gained independence from Great Britain in 1965 with Banjul having formerly been Bathurst. With excellent beaches, a major river and fertile soil,  the Gambian economy has a good economic base for farming fishing and tourism.  I was impressed with the airport for such a small, developing country and several large planes from Europe were parked on the tarmac.  

Map of The Gambia with Senegal on three sides

Here are a few links providing more information on The Gambia and on other small African countries.

 I will spend tonight in Dakar, Senegal and fly on tomorrow to my next working stop in Praia, Cape Verde, another small country few people have heard of.  I'll post something on my blog on this country in a couple of days.