Turkmenistan: Day 1

Ashgabat is sort of like a Silk Road version of Dubai replete with a fantasyland of hundreds of spanking new white marble buildings. We are staying at a new five star hotel,  Hotel Ashgabat,  next to a brand new stadium.  The streets up on this hill, a mile or two out of the downtown area, are deserted. I’m quite sure I’m the first person to have slept in my room at this place. This city is truly a ‘build it and they will come’ view of civilization. I fear photos will be the only way to capture the view.

A vast array of people have shown up here to revel in the national horse. Plane loads of exhibitors, horse trainers, scientists, enthusiasts, have descended on Ashgabat to revel in the Akhal-Teke Horse.  In fact, the governmental Horse Association has brought over a thousand people in from all around the world at government expense to celebrate the horse.

After arriving around 3AM we sat around in the Executive Lounge at the Airport with a hundred or more other exhausted travelers while, person by person, we were slowly processed and then luggage delivered a bag or two at a time. We did not arrive at Hotel Ashgabat till 8am.  We had breakfast, buffet style, (who was to know that every meal at the hotel would be pretty much the same fare) then got a rest before our afternoon meeting, and then to set up at the Exhibition Center. While most of the group worked with U.S. Embassy staff to stage our booth Gail and I were driven to the Embassy’s public affairs center at the Ak Altyn Hotel

There, Gail and I conducted a video session with aspiring English speakers.  Nearly 25 people, mostly teens but some older folks as well, reveled in scenes of our country and glimpses of life on the land in the American West.  They crowded around us afterwards, all wanting their pictures taken with the cowboys. They were so pure in their loving enthusiasm I almost wept.

Hotel Ashgabat, our 5 star dorm

Hotel Ashgabat, our 5 star dorm

Big, new stadium

Big, new stadium

The city's television tower. On the other side of these hills to south is Iran

The city’s television tower. On the other side of these hills to south is Iran

Gigantic video screens adorn the sides of many buildings. This one showing horse races.

Gigantic video screens adorn the sides of many buildings. This one showing horse races.




Travels to Turkmenistan

“Geography does not demonstrate Turkmenistan’s hopelessness, rather it demonstrates only the beginning of wisdom in search for an historical pattern: one of repeated invasions by Parthians, Mongals, Persians, Russian Czarists, Soviets, and a plethora of Turkic tribes against a naked and unprotected landscape. There was the barest existence of civilization because none was allowed to permanently sink deep roots.”

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate Robert D. Kaplan

I’m just back from a cultural tour titled “The American Cowboy Show,” sponsored by Vista 360º, an organization from Jackson, Wyoming headed by the amazing Candra Day. We are here to set up a booth at a big horse conference where we will display cowboy gear, photos, art and play cowboy songs. The Turkmen horse, the Akhal-Teke,  is a symbol for the country and this weekend is a national holiday dedicated to the horse. It’s a big deal. After the weekend we start going into schools for the U.S. Embassy, singing songs, telling poems, and showing some videos including a slide show giving our Turkmen audience an idea of where we come from.

I’ve traveled before to Central Asia with Candra to Kyrgyzstan and I’ve been looking forward to sharing this new experience with our five-some.  Along to perform and do a bit of grass roots diplomacy is Andy Hedges from Texas, Gail Steiger from Arizona and Linda Svendsen from Montana. It’s a stellar group of musicians and people who exude goodwill.

Candra Day, our fearless leader

Candra Day, our fearless leader

Me, Linda Svendsen,Gail Steiger and Andy Hedges. Our little cowboy band

Me, Linda Svendsen,Gail Steiger and Andy Hedges. Our little cowboy band


The reason I’m starting this blog after returning rather while it was happening is we had spotty internet in Turkmenistan but more importently the country has very tight controls on what is said, what is published, and what actions take place within its borders.  Turkmenistan is listed in a couple dubious top tens that are telling.  In a recent article from Freedom House Turkmenistan was in the top ten of the most repressive societies. As far as the list of country’s who are unfriendly to tourist it also makes the top ten.

I wanted to see this totalitarian place for myself and it turned out to be much more complex than I ever imagined. There is plenty to drive freedom-loving people crazy but there are also some hopeful things happening in the country. To follow are a series of photos of the capital city Ashgabat. It was our home for a little over a week. In that time we got a good taste of many aspects of the place including the OZ-like white marble clad city in the desert. Over the next week I will post more details on our trip and add a few photos as well.  I hope you will join me on our adventure.

A lovely booth of  traditional Turkmen horse gear from one of the five provinces at the Horse Exposition.

A lovely booth of traditional Turkmen horse gear from one of the five provinces at the Horse Exposition.

Hundreds of new marble clad buildings line the wide and empty  boulevards

Hundreds of new marble clad buildings line the wide and empty boulevards

The Palace of Happiness is where Ashgabat citizens come to get married. It turns different colors at night.

The Palace of Happiness is where Ashgabat citizens come to get married. It turns different colors at night.

This is a new five star hotel under construction.

This is a new five star hotel under construction.

more marble buildings

more marble buildings

Intoxicating India: Last Views

I’m now in the Paris Airport, having left our hotel 24 hours ago on our journey home. Still we have a few legs left. Our last stop in India was the capitol city of Kerala, Trivandrum. The British shortened the real name Thiruvananthapuram so they could say it. The city sits on the West coast almost to the tip of the country amid low lying hills. The guide books suggest it as a city to give a pass but after being on the the tourist conveyor belt of Kochi and Alleppey it is a great release to be in a place where everyone is not sizing you up to see how much money they can get out of you. The place seems genuine, a living city with real history. It is not all that equipped with tourist trappings but has lovely Hindu temples, museums and interesting neighborhoods.

We are here for a series of Indian musical concerts I read about online while developing our travel itinerary. I was intrigued about the venue and its open ended earthen pots facing down from the ceiling creating incredible acoustics:

“The ambience at the concert venue is something to be experienced to be believed. Perfectly balanced acoustics, lighting by oil lamps, the divine grace of the Goddess in whose honor the concerts are conducted, utterly disciplined and informed audience, the feeling of having travelled back in time by around two centuries…..the list is endless.

There are some restrictions though. 1) Only Hindus are allowed inside since it is a temple. 2) Men have to wear a mundu/veshti/dhothi and take off their shirts. 3) Everybody has to be seated by 6:00 pm at the latest. 4) Nobody can leave before the concerts finish. 5) The concerts start at 6:00 pm Sharp and finish at 9:00 pm Sharp this year, except on the last two days. (Please check out the timing for each day) 6) Since the concerts are done as offerings to the Devi and not as “Performances” there is no applause. 7) Mobile phones are STRICTLY Forbidden inside. 8) The main krithi for each day is fixed. A speaker will be kept outside the steps of the Shree Padmanabhaswami Temple (Which is adjacent to the Navarathri Mandapam)”

The organizer of the concert series is Prince Rama Varma of the royal family. I learned he is also a noted classical Indian singer. I wrote him a couple emails asking him if I could interview him for one of our radio series, “What’s in a Song.” I never got a reply.

Upon arriving in Trivandrum we made our way to the Palace where somehow, I finagled my way past the guards saying I had to meet the Prince. They pointed me in the direction of an inner courtyard. Another guard tried to turn me around but again I invoked the name of Rama Varma.

Driving here from north Kerala we were passed several times by speeding entourage of Government officials in fancy cars with police escorts. Having this image in mind of pomp and circumstance, I was startled when the guard pointed me to a tiny van backing into a parking place across a lawn. Sure enough, getting out of the drivers seat was a casually dressed middle aged man with a kind face. As it turns out the royal family was deposed when India achieved independence in 1947 so Rama Varma is a Prince by birthright but his life is totally dedicated to music so he acts like a musician with few regal airs. As I approached him I met someone with whom I immediately felt simpatico. He had kind playful eyes, was well spoken, and curious to hear of my repeated requests for an interview. Unfortunately my attempts to contact him were never received and though this was an incredibly busy time he happily agreed to give me 40 minutes the next day for an interview. I breathed a sigh of relief. I will not get into the details of our delightful interview, or the concerts but will leave the story to conclude with, hopefully, a segment you can hear on NPR. I do want to give you a preview of the Rama Varma and the song that he talked about in our interview. CLICK HERE.

These last couple days in India I’ve been trying to figure out what is so intoxicating about this Country. I know travel to India is not for everyone. One must be willing to let go of any impression that you are in control. I see travelers who are constantly gritting their teeth. I feel for them but also think they are missing the rewards of surprise and delight of each outcome. Increasingly, my photographs have become an attempt to capture the mood or feeling of the place rather than to document. Therefore, here are some of my last images from our final days in southern India. Thanks for tuning into my musings.
















Kerala Cuisine: Fishing, Fish, Coconut, Spice, Rice and Bounty

Right this minute I’m looking at a couple dozen men from a small beach village about 15 miles north of Trevandrum, Kerala, India, working to fill their nets with fish. It’s been raining, a post-monsoon storm pattern, so the sea is rough, the surf high. Working from the beach looks complicated. A group of men stand on the beach with ropes. taking direction from a couple of others in the water who keep the net straight and in position to catch fish. Earlier an ancient looking boat was launched from the beach through the surf to take the nets out further. Groups of men, perhaps extended families, line this straight beach as far as I can see in both direction, each moving with the tide and leaving at least 100 yards between the next fishing group. Yesterday morning I observed the catch and it was all small silver fish, maybe sardines. Today, it looks like the catch is better. The fishermen yell and accompany the hard pull of the net with chants. After the catch is sorted, they give another series of shouts to let people know they have fish for sale. Tonight we may be the beneficiaries of today’s catch.

In another Kerala scene, not too far from here, a lithe man wearing his traditional dhoti (what is called a sarong in other tropical places) shinnies up a tall coconut tree to reap a harvest. Later a machete will trim the husk and drain the precious milk from the coconut. A cook will take the meat and grate it. In time, the milk and meat will form the base of many recipes. Tonight we may be the beneficiaries of this harvest.

Another group picks spices. It could be a root like ginger. It could be berries like pepper. It could be leaves like curry. Women clean the waste from the potent spice, or let the spice dry in the sun. Tonight a combination of these spices will join the other ingredients at just the right time to bring out the full flavor of each, fish, coconut. Kerala cuisine is richly spicy, favoring the hot influences of chili, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon. And don’t forget garlic, cumin seeds, coriander, and turmeric.

There are also various round breads made from wheat flour to dip into the rich sauces and curries. More often, you use your fingers to dip rice into the curry, rice grown in the fields along the fresh backwaters near the sea, wide swaths of that intense green that require great care to produce a good crop. As well, cassava (tapioca) is a seasonal favorite, served the same way as rice.

We are the beneficiaries of all this fresh local food, picked with heart and served graciously. Thank you, Kerala, for your bounty. To follow are photos of boats and fishing and a variety of nets ranging from the great Chinese nets, lever action, to the more basic beach nets. We have rice harvests, ginger drying, markets, and pictures of food and eating. We are nearing the end of our journey.


















Archeological Overload, Hampi, India

I’ve never been to a ruined city that was so architecturally interesting, so naturally beautiful, and so complete with the continuity of living cultural traditions as Hampi. Pronounced Humpi, most of the great city was built between 1336 and 1565 at which time the Deccan Muslim Confederacy conquered the city, taking advantage of fighting within the ranks of the Vijayanagara Empire which flourished in these bouldered hills for a couple hundred years. European travelers of the day called it the second most beautiful city in the world, surpassed only by Rome. Like other conquered cities, the place was sacked, partially destroyed, then left to grow over, fill in, settle.

Today the countryside is littered with large boulders which have been there forever, stone temples and excavated Hindu deities that have been there for several hundred years. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most amazing places I’ve been. The first day we hired a guide who took us to palaces, elephant stables, marketplaces, queens’ baths, and military installations. The photographs to follow begin with our adventure at dawn on top of a hill where we waited for the sun to rise at an abandoned stone temple high above another active Hindu Temple that sat below on the hillside. As we listened to early morning singing and tabla playing from the Temple, the sun rose over Hampi. I’m hoping the area does not change. It’s certainly not overrun with tourists at this point but another worry is that there are a lot of steel mills and iron mines in the area which are changing the economic dynamic. For instance, the valleys were rice paddies not long ago but the farms cannot compete with the wages paid at the steel mills so the farms grow coconut which is much less labor intensive. Who knows what other forces are at work in this complex place. India is on the move.













Holy Cow: on the moooove in India


The bovine beast above is truly a holy cow. That’s because most folks are Hindu where I took the picture at some old Hindu ruins in Hampi. Here they revere the cow so you see one or a few sauntering like royalty even in the middle of all the hubbub of city and traffic. I’m not sure what the police would do to you if you hit one. I doubt it would end up like the motto of the Road Kill Cafe on Route 66 which claims, “From your grill to ours.” Anyhow, we have now progressed south to Kerala, the southwestern most state in India. Here, one out of every five people is Christian and we are starting to see beef on the menu. To follow is the Wiki synopsis of the roots of Christianity here:

St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, landed on the Kerala coast in 52 A.D. He is said to have first converted about a dozen Brahmin families to Christianity. He organized Christian communities, mostly from upper castes, in several places and established seven churches in Kerala and then at last got martyrdom in Mylapore, Chennai, in 72 A.D. However the exact year of his arrival here is disputed due to lack of credible historical evidence,[6][7][8] despite the fact that the fruits of his hard labour being visible everywhere. His tomb is venerated by people of all religions even today.[9] In 345 A.D., a Palestinian business man, Thomas Cana, along with 72 families came and settled in Kerala, thereby augmenting the Christian community.[10] A second period of intense Christian missionary activity began with the arrival of European missionaries since the discovery of sea route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498.

I’m curious about Indian Christianity. We are staying at a hotel run by a Roman Catholic family. While antique shopping in Cochin, I came upon a wooden statue of Jesus seated in a lotus position. I liked the Buddha-like incarnation which seems a little more like St. Thomas’s take. I’ve included another photo below of the blending of culture and religion here.

The second cow pictured below is not such a holy cow since I took her photo on the edge of a river this morning while waiting to see an Ayurvedic doctor for a massage. We are down on the tip of India on the west coast. The fish are so tasty I’ve not tried beef. I’m hoping to get another post together on fish and the Kerala cuisine, that is, if I don’t spill too much on my keyboard in the process.

By the way, I have another idea about horn honking, the subject of my first post. I’ve been pondering how the Indians became such good honkers. I’m remembering old movies portraying important British generals making their way through throngs of humans in their long Rolls Royces, honking up a storm, and it made me think that the British might be to blame for all the honking. Most of the people honking today are the grandchildren of those who were honked at by British and maharajas since they were the only ones who had those first cars. I wonder what went through the minds of those first Indians being honked at. Perhaps they were saying to themselves, “Someday I’ll be a honker, wait and see.”

Sixty plus years after Independence the British legacy has morphed into the Western legacy. Every billboard and most signs are in English though most people speak little English. Pretty much each state has its own language. Many people speak their own regional language but also speak Hindi to communicate throughout the country and at least understand some English. However, much of education and the new technological world comes to you in English because it is the language of modernity, of progress.




Does the Banjo Sing For India?

I brought the banjo with me simply to see how it would sound here. Would the humidity loosen the skin head and diminish the pluck, the plunk? Would anyone else want to listen? Would my tunes sound flat compared to the etherial scales of this subcontinent? Would it be an incessant drone for my travel mates?

My traveling banjo, the old Dobson Brothers, keeps coming through and here in India it is no exception. It’s such a lovely instrument. Sitting down to a tune is always a grounding force. I’m not sure it’s so much culturally grounding as it is pleasurable on the most basic physical level. Mostly, its strings have been employed in the privacy of our hotel rooms as I’m shy to take it to the streets. Eric, my nephew, who plays nicely, had the gumption to take it out in the courtyard at the guest lodge for the Tibetan monastery. He said the monks seemed quite curious. He told me it was down right multicultural, playing a Bulgarian folk tune at a Tibetan monastery in India on a banjo.

Earlier I had offered to play for the students at the Monastery. Our host, the English Secretary, declined politely with ready-made excuses. I fear that most Indians–and Tibetans, for that matter–believe the only American culture is our most crass pop culture, a corrupting force to conservative values worldwide. I can’t help but think that if we would have stayed a couple more days. we could have made arrangements with the English-speaking school principal we met. He’s traveled to the US before with the Monastery’s performing group and I’m sure has a less stereotyped view of our nation.

When I was in New Zealand and Australia earlier this year, I was struck by how everyone we met aspired to international travel. Most Indians I’ve met here have rarely traveled outside their own region and have little desire to venture out. We have made several invitations for Carolyn’s friends to visit us in the US and though they listen politely, you can see there is little desire, little curiosity. There are those who travel but they are the modern Indians who leave the country for opportunity. They are a vast minority. This may change as people see more of the world through the Internet. Every rural village has its computer lab which they are extremely proud of. However, there is something about Indian culture which is so encompassing, a world of complexity and nuance. Who needs to leave when it is so bloody interesting here?

My big debut on the banjo came at a school in the small village of Gulumb in the hills outside of Wai. Carolyn, my sister, had worked with the teachers there over the past couple of months and they were anxious to let the students hear American folk music. Because the rains have been heavy they did not seat the children on the ground in front of the school which would have been the normal assembly venue. Instead the students walked to the main covered courtyard at the local Hindu temple in town. The first photos show the place, those students, and me playing. Eric videotaped part of the performance and promises to put it on YouTube when we get back to the States or when he can figure out how to make it work here which is always a challenge.

I played a few tunes and songs with simple introductions that were ably translated by the English teacher. First was “Texas Traveler.” I asked the children to listen for the few words in the song to see if they could hear the English, “Oh, early in the morning.” Though they were not able to discern the words they had fun listening for them as they all take English classes. I then sang, “Giddyup Napoleon.” telling them it was a song about a farmer who goes to the big town where he is fearful he will be taken advantage of by the city slickers. I figured they might relate to this theme. After a couple more tunes I sang my own song, “Alone Town,” which I said was about a man so old that he knows very few people in his small town, but is acquainted with more people living in the graveyard. When I explained the song, the English teacher looked at me and said, “very sad.” The kids really seemed to enjoy the sound of the banjo, the themes of the songs, and seeing this strange big white bearded man sitting in front of them. I was thrilled.

Later in the day I had the chance to perform for the students of the Akshar Institute in Wai where Carolyn has done much of her work. This is a school for children and adults with cognitive disabilities. Before playing the students performed a wonderful folk dance. My tact for this audience was less language based and more physical comedy as I peered into my banjo case, just barely opened, as though there was a monster inside. I had fun goofing around, even improvising a tune and singing two songs that I’ve never played on the banjo before. They kept asking for more. Again, I was thrilled.

Why was I thrilled? There certainly was no fee involved, no big hype. It was just a simple act, the gift of music. When we were in Wai we could not pay for anything. We could not even look at an object with desire without our hosts insisting on purchasing it for us. We could not pay for a meal at a restaurant. Carolyn’s friends and colleagues were so devotedly generous. As it was, Carolyn was showered with gifts on her departure. The teachers insisted on having a tailor come and measure Eric and me for Kurtas. So being able to give just one little thing back, a bit of music, felt incredible.

I’ve spent my career benefiting from so much generosity. When Taki and I make radio stories, not only do people give wholeheartedly of their stories, but we have always been treated with such kindness and generosity. This happens almost every place we go and generally we are not visiting rich people. Often our stories are about people with few material resources. I love to interview people, get their stories, their lives, down for posterity. I know in the long term that the documents we record, transcribe and preserve will be a gift to the world but at the moment it always seems we are taking. We are the beneficiaries.

Music is not like that. It is an art form of the moment and when you play a tune or sing a song it is a gift to the moment. As I play banjo more and more, I am enjoying breathing deep, smelling the air, listening to the silence around me, and attempting to be part of that moment musically. I’ve never felt I was much for improvisation but when my expectations are low and I’m open, sometimes, just sometimes, wonderful sounds come out of the instrument. I know this all sounds a little woo woo, but its not that at all. Its really quite simple and direct and, by the way, therapeutic.

I know this have been a rambling post but to answer my own question, YES, the banjo is ringing, it is singing in India. From the BaBa of Banjo …