Friday, July 3, 2015

Casablanca Street Art

One of the highlights of our 2015 visit to Morocco was the chance to experience a sliver of the Casablanca street art scene.

Notes from Morocco

Jenny and I are back in the U.S. after meeting in Finland, taking a quick tour of St. Petersburg, and spending a week in Morocco. Yeah, it was a bit disjointed - and for now I'll focus on the later part of the trip. We flew into Marrakesh in late afternoon, checked into our riad (a traditional home notable for its relatively unadorned exterior that hides an indoor courtyard), exchanged some currency, and enjoyed a sunset stroll through Jemaa el-Fna Square. This gave us a chance to practice our kindest but most determined la shukran to ward off the dudes trying to foist monkeys on our shoulders or pitch some other unwanted product or "service." That evening we savored a rooftop meal overlooking the square and then found our way back home through the narrow alleys of the medina, sounding off landmarks and looking sharp for the rush of oncoming motorbikes.

The next day saw us once again getting pleasurably lost in the souk's seemingly endless labyrinth. Highlights included the siren song of the snake charmer, buying glass after glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, saving extra table scraps to feed the stray kitties, practicing the art of "walking away" as part of the haggling ritual, and smiling every time some dude called me "Ali Baba." Following an afternoon nap we returned to the square, figuring we'd take a "direct route" through the souk rather than follow our typical route around the main road. Yeah, great plan. So we wandered narrow passages that seem to bend into some sort of trans-dimensional warp. "Guides" appeared in search of dirham, but we made our way to the square - just in time to celebrate the sunset with some mint tea. Jenny insisted on street food, so we dined on Moroccan salad, kefta, chicken skewers, and orange juice. Back at the hotel, we climbed up to the roof to check out the stars. First song on our playlist: Midnight in the Oasis.

Our last day in Marrakesh meant sleeping in, followed by packing. For Jenny, that also meant a visit to Henna Cafe where she partook in the artistic ritual (and I enjoyed some mint tea). We then ambled back to Jemaa el-Fna Square, climbing the steps to take our seats on a rooftop restaurant that sprays cool blasts of mist to beat the heat. Afterward we plunged into the souk in search of the Ben Youssef Madrasa and, later, an art museum. Thus an endless array of invitations and announcements ("Excuse me." "Are you lost?" "Hey Ali Baba, good price for you!" "What are you looking for?" "This way is closed." "Bonjour." "Hola." "Hello!"). We laughed at our foolish hope ("OK, we head straight that way") but somehow made our way back in time to collect our bags, grab a cab to the station, and board the night train to Tangier.

We arrived the next morning, found our lodging, and began the explore the medina, which features lots of hills, narrow passages, and stairways that seemingly lead nowhere. We strolled to the Casbah, trying to politely dissuade would-be guides and wondering whether we could make our way back to the waypoint without a map. Happily, it's true: Not all who wander are lost. Thereafter we shared breakfast on the roof of our riad: Moroccan coffee, mint tea, fresh squeezed orange juice, crepes, corn meal bread, and melon. Then we washed a few days' worth of sweaty, stinky clothes, and celebrated a slow, lazy day. Afternoon concluded atop the roof, awaiting the sunset call to prayer. It's such a lovely sound, the rising call to reverence pouring forth from minarets and speakers around the hilltop.

The next day in Tangier we meandered to the American Legation, which I first toured back in '88 or so, only to find it is closed on Saturday. No worries, though. We simply had more time to get lost in the medina. There were few touts today, and those up this early weren't especially persistent. Eventually we climbed to the Casbah and learned a bit about the region's placement as crossroads for Berber, Roman, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, and French travelers. For lunch we sat atop Le Salon Bleu, where watermelon juice is a speciality. Early afternoon brought us back to the alleyways to pet stray cats and photograph arched doorways. At one point we were sprinkled with water that seemed to drop from the blue skies. It took us a moment to realize we were standing under a carpet hung to dry in the sun.

We wrapped up our Morocco visit in Casablanca, a five-hour train ride from Tangier. By this point we'd gotten fairly used to the medina routine, but our brief wandering revealed a remarkable assemblage of street art. We also stopped at a stand to fill up a liter bottle with fresh squeezed orange juice. Given the Ramadan period, we tried to never eat or drink in (too) public a place - even sneaking into quiet alleys to quench our thirsts - but our foreignness, our obviously touristic demeanors, earned plenty of attention wherever we went. As the sun began to set we walked to the grand (Hassan II) mosque to enjoy the towering architecture and cool sea breezes, and later to our inevitable visit to Rick's. Of course we knew that the "actual" Rick's Cafe Americain was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage. Still, we enjoyed the chance to dress up, sip fancy drinks, and reflect on the adventures we've shared.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Back in the U.S.A.

I've been back in the U.S. since Tuesday afternoon, reconnecting with my family, dealing with jet lag, and learning that my injured finger is healing pretty well. And now I'm reflecting on the experience. I'm happy to report that despite the complications of near daily medical visits in my last two weeks in Belarus, I kept myself joyfully busy.

This included a chance to enjoy a front-row viewing of Madame Butterfly with Clark​, Will, and Ace; and an invitation to present a new lecture, "Critiquing the American Technological Sublime: Alternate Futures Beyond The Gernsback Continuum," at the American Studies conference hosted by Minsk State Linguistic University as a plenary speaker. Even more importantly, I shared celebratory meals with friends from Epam, Belarus State University, and the Fulbright/English Language Fellow community before departing for home.

A highlight of those last two weeks was the chance to join Katya Sadovskaya and a large group of BSU students and faculty for a bus tour around northern Belarus. We visited towns and villages, stopping at monuments, churches, and ruins, and I got a chance to see northern parts of the country that had so far eluded me.

Along with a delightful ongoing conversation with Katya, I suppose my favorite part of the day was a brief breakdown near a small faming community, which afforded us a chance to walk through fields and small windy roads, photographing colorful village homes and joining some brave students determined to pet a cow.

I remember thinking, "It's just this sort of silliness that nearly cost me a finger on Victory Day," but I felt compelled to offer my healthy hand in hopes that the creature would be friendly. She was wary, of course, wisely so. But she allowed us to gently pet her, and then followed us a while before we boarded the bus. You never know how a new friendship can begin.

With all the final meetings, packing, and logistics, I was amazed at how fast the last days went. And then suddenly it was 4 a.m., and I was awaiting the embassy driver who would offer my final Belarusian handshake. I still feel somewhat guilty that I was so affixed on my phone that morning, sending a few more goodbyes and plucking some other weeds from my email, that I barely noticed our trip through Minsk on the way to the airport. I'd become so familiar with the road out of town, having taken it for so many occasions, that I nearly forgot to focus on the unfolding scene outside my windows. I'm glad I took lots of pictures!

Back in the States, one of my first tasks was to prepare a report of my Fulbright experiences. Here's some of what I wrote: Living in Belarus for four months provided me an opportunity to develop new curricula, travel to dozens of cities and villages throughout the country, and rethink what it is to be both an American and a citizen of the world. I presented courses and lectures for over 1,000 people, and I made many new friends along the way.

This experience boils down to an unofficial motto that guided me these past four months: "Always Say Yes." In other words, when the embassy asked me to develop workshops or prepare talks, I opened my calendar. And when representatives of schools, libraries, and businesses asked me to drop by, I did my best to oblige them. Because with every new conversation, I discovered new opportunities to improve my intercultural competence and learn something new about the world.

Living in Belarus was challenging, exhilarating, and surprising. I saw the limitations of regional and national stereotypes - and I hope to have complicated a few assumptions that Belarusians have about Americans. And now I look forward to a range of burgeoning collaborations. I plan to do some writing with at least one colleague at Belarus State University, and I will certainly keep in touch with my new pals. Best of all, I will return to this country if at all possible. I enjoyed Belarus so much, but left so much yet to see!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Adventures in Belarusian Health Care

I've taken a couple weeks away from blogging, but a nearly severed finger tends to obstruct even the most disciplined writing regimen. Here's the story: I was attending the May 9th Victory Day parade with Clark, Will, and Ace when I noticed that folks were climbing atop a mobile rocket launcher for photos. So I hoisted myself upward and did the typical tourist thing, taking silly "look at me" pix. As I began to navigate my way back to the ground, I remember thinking, "This is much higher than I expected. I'm gonna have to let myself drop a couple feet. The landing will hurt a bit, but not too much. I can handle it."

I dropped and felt the expected lightening bolt of pain upon impact, but not where I anticipated. Turns out, as I fell from the vehicle I caught my wedding ring onto a hunk of metal and damn near peeled my finger off. Steadying myself and spotting red splotches on the ground, I stared at the digit that now resembled a mushroom cap. The thin gold band was cut and corkscrewed in and out of my skin. I said to the ashen faced people nearby: "I can handle it. I can handle it." Then as the pain started to dial up, I told Clark, "I think I've got a real problem here. I think I need help." Clark jumped into action and flagged down a soldier who directed us to an ambulance across the parade route.

At first the medics drove at what seemed like a leisurely pace. "Great," I thought, "a frickin' tour of the city." But as my breathing grew more pronounced, the driver kicked on the siren. "спасибо," I whispered. "I can handle this." The driver sped up. Elena X. Karpovich met me at the hospital, wrangled the insurance paperwork, and got me seen by a doctor: a young guy - maybe thirty, possibly younger. I vividly remember how he laid out a piece of brown butcher paper and positioned a big scalpel next to my finger. I thought, "Well, shit. This is it." I was sure he'd amputate. Instead he snipped some chunks of flesh and unhooked the ring from inside my finger.

His priorities, naturally, were the mechanics of the job, not my feelings. Thus when he cut a piece out of the gold band to ease its removal, I felt like I should cheer him on: "Yeah, cut it, cut it." He stopped and stared at me strangely. Then he spoke; the words were English, but the sentiment was all Russian.

"Don't speak."

A few minutes later, as he was injecting the wound with jabs of anesthetic, I started to recite a mantra to help myself manage the pain.

"This is a good pain. This is a good pain…"

Once more, he stopped and stared into my eyes:

"Don't speak." 

So, yeah, at first I thought he was a jerk. But I gradually came to appreciate his no-nonsense style. He knitted together dozens of stitches where the ring had been and up both sides of my finger (I later asked him how many, but he'd lost count). The doctor also developed a long-term treatment plan that involved him going well beyond the call of duty to ensure that I received excellent follow-up care. And with two subsequent meetings, he grew kinder and more patient with me.

A few days later, Elena transitioned me to a local clinic. There another doctor and nurse changed the bandage every couple days, checking to see if infection had set in. That meant me donning surgical slippers, walking into a treatment room, and waiting for the inevitably sharp pain as the nurse would gingerly remove the old bandage. Afterward I would sign a form and pay at the desk. All communication at this point was in Russian.

Elena, always calm and almost impossibly nice, endured many phone calls when I needed the doctor to translate his instructions. And day by day my finger began to feel better. I wore a splint for more than a week, getting it removed only yesterday. Oh, and what about the cost? Well, that annoying insurance that folks must pay at the Minsk airport covered my emergency care, and the subsequent clinic visits cost 96,000 BY Rubles each: the equivalent of $7.00 a visit. A pretty good deal if you ask me.

The EMTs, doctors, nurses - and most definitely Elena X. Karpovich - helped me through a scary time. Health care in Belarus is by no means a perfect institution, neither for visiting Americans, nor for local folks who lack an embassy representative. And each stage included plenty of hassle. But good people cared for me throughout the process, and I am grateful. Indeed, during my last visit with the ER doc, I learned how close he thought I'd come to losing my finger. At once, his scary instruction "Don't speak" made more sense. He was concentrating on each snip and every suture to keep me whole.

I await a visit with my primary care physician to check on infection and determine when the stitches can be removed. I hope she'll give me good news. But no matter what happens next, I am thankful for my adventures in Belarusian health care.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Homemade Video: Victory Day

Here's some homemade video of Minsk lit up to celebrate Victory Day. Note: I shot this hours after nearly getting my finger severed in a poorly executed plan to hop off a mobile rocket launcher. A combination of adrenaline and painkillers inspired me to get out of my apartment and gather footage from one of the prettiest evenings I ever saw in Belarus.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Chernobyl and Pripyat

My daughter Vienna and I have a joke about Homer Simpson arguing with Jean-Luc Picard. In The Simpsons episode entitled "Lost Our Lisa," Homer convinces his daughter to break into a museum so they can see a special exhibit. They enter the building but stop at a velvet rope that intimidates Lisa. Homer takes a more adventuresome view: "You can't go this far and then not go farther!" In response, Captain Picard affirms the value of limits, especially when faced with a grave threat. Thus he replies in Star Trek: First Contact: "The line must be drawn here. This far, no farther!"

As far as I'm concerned, Homer wins the argument. Thus I went to Chernobyl. I mean, I was in Belarus. It was just a one hour flight to Kiev [Kyiv, around here] and a two hour bus ride to the Exclusion Zone. And my friends know, I am fascinated with relics and ruins. There was no way I'd miss this chance. I'd walk if I had to…

Of course, "one does not simply walk" into Chernobyl. It is a highly secure, undeniably dangerous place, that also happens to be quite beautiful in springtime. So I joined three other tourists - Yasushi Oizumi and Chihiro Kino, from Japan, and Olivier Wullen, from Belgium - and took a tour led by SoloEast. During the drive north from Ukraine's capital city, we learned about the disaster - and about the heroism of the "liquidators" who marched and flew into certain death to secure Reactor Number 4, sometimes by dropping armloads of sand, lead, and other absorbing materials into the burning core.

While scientists debate the possibilities, folks around here claim that an uncontrolled meltdown and subsequent follow-up explosion would have destroyed Kyiv and likely rendered Europe uninhabitable. Is this a fact? Did the world come this close to such a catastrophe? I haven't a clue. What I can confirm is that the radiation hazard is relative. Igor, our guide, demonstrated this fact by showing us a meter in downtown Kyiv: 0.15 micro-Sieverts, which is much lower than one encounters on an intercontinental flight. Weirdly enough, the level was also slightly lower when we passed the 30K checkpoint of the Exclusion Zone. But step near a hot spot and the levels exceed measurable amounts. All the more reason to visit Chernobyl with an experienced guide - and respect the signs.

Passing the guard-post required a display of our passports and careful scrutiny of our vehicle and tour-group paperwork. We then commenced to a rigid but fascinating itinerary of overgrown buildings, abandoned villages, crumbling Soviet propaganda ("Communism Lights the Future!" "Lenin is Always With Us!"]. In one room, early in our tour, I spotted a doll covered in dust. Igor downplayed the discovery: "You'll see lots of those."

Driving further into the Exclusion Zone, we passed an old woman named Rosalia who was walking the road from Chernobyl City to the village of Zales'ye, where she lives alone in a wooden house surrounded by pear and apple trees. Local authorities have begged her to accept a free flat outside the contaminated zone, but she insists on staying put. Normally she walks, but today she accepted a ride.

After we pulled off the weed-pocked road and begin tramping the winding path to her door, my memory drifted back to the Dark Walks of old English pleasure gardens, some of which were outfitted with freshly constructed ruins. Occasionally, their owners would install a real live "hermit" whose job was to offer benedictions of "Memento mori" to revelers wandering the pathways, and perhaps hoping for a little earthly romance in the cool of the evening. Igor reminded us that Rosalia doesn't often chat with strangers; he assured us that we were quite fortunate to meet her. And naturally we felt gratitude as she picked us tulips from her garden and presented a bag of bread for our day, reminding us (via translation) how Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves.

Suitably inspired, we picked our way closer and closer to the infamous reactor, detouring though to visit the "Russian Woodpecker," an early-warning radar system built to safeguard the Soviet Union against American nuclear missiles. The structure, formally the Дуга-3, earned its nickname from the chirping sounds it produced that could be picked up on televisions and radios all over the world.

Today the towering device is being devoured by forest, its control stations dripping and dank. I was therefore especially surprised when Igor announced, "We are not supposed to go inside. We will go inside." And so we did, making our ways down dark corridors, lit by the flashes of our cameras and phones.

Later in the afternoon we visited Reactor Number 5, crossing a rickety wooden bridge toward the interior of a vast cooling tower. We stared at the blue sky as birds wheeled lazy circles above us, and we clanged pieces of metal debris to produce creepy echoes of our presence. Following recent rains, the ground was moist and spongy, redolent with mushrooms, and a few sun-dried bones that seemed incongruous to this place.

We then drove next to an artificial canal where Igor pointed out monstrously (but naturally, he emphasized) huge catfish. How nice, I thought, that Rosalia had furnished us with a bagful of bread. The fish gobbled each slice without taking time to chew. Once more, the "loaves and fishes" story swam through my mind.

Finally we drove to a viewing stand next to the sarcophagus of Reactor Number 4, the plant whose explosion was caused, we are told, by a steam turbine test gone catastrophically awry. Yes, the radiation levels are somewhat higher here, but not excessively so - at least not for controlled visits. In fact, most of the truly dangerous stuff is found further north of this place, crossing over into Belarus. It was all a matter of prevailing wind patterns. We stood in silence, checking meters and photographing the rusting structure built to contain the damage.

An international array of countries and companies is erecting a new sarcophagus nearby, which will be rolled by rail and bolted over the existing container. The job was scheduled to be completed by now, and even when the new sarcophagus is fitted over the old, perhaps in a few years, no one expects it to last more than a century.

Because Chernobyl is, in its own way, still a working nuclear facility, undergoing a dismantling process that will take decades, this was one of the few places where our photography was closely monitored. Igor said we could take pictures of the reactor and the new container, and the monument, but nothing else. At least from this vantage point.

We concluded the day with a trip to Pripyat, a model town completed in 1970 as housing for Chernobyl workers and as a showcase for Soviet urban design. The city was developed to accommodate 50,000 people. This was a young town. The average age was 26, with about 1,000 children being born each year. Just prior to the disaster its people were buzzing with anticipation for the upcoming May Day celebration.

When the reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, few local people understood the significance of the event. And it took two days for officials to order that the city be abandoned. To reduce the risk of panic, evacuees were instructed to pack only documents and other essentials. No need to bring more than a 72 hours worth of supplies; they would, after all, return soon. Now Pripyat is called a ghost town, which is mostly true. There are some workers here, however, and a growing population of animal and plant life who have fitted themselves to the lethal environment.

Our group stayed at a tourist hotel outside the 10K Exclusion Zone and reminded to obey the 10 p.m. curfew. Having heard of wolves that roam the area, the curfew seemed like more than a reasonable idea to me. The next day we returned to Pripyat for a more in-depth tour, which included a police station, a fire house, an experimental green house, and several schools. As Igor promised, we found lots of dolls, and in School Number 3, a pile of child-sized gas masks. I also found a booklet containing monthly dues stamps for a trade-unionist amid a pile of children's alphabet flash cards.

I held the artifact in my hand and wondered about its provenance. It might have been from someone who lived in Pripyat before the disaster, or it might be from a worker trucked in to decontaminate the city afterward. Either way, just a quick slip into the pocket, I thought, and I can bring it home. What a souvenir, from Chernobyl! With much reluctance, I laid it back upon the pile. Just walking through the places so quickly abandoned by people who thought they'd return in a few days makes me feel guilty. There's no way I would disturb this place any more than necessary.

Throughout the two-day trip, I frequently thought about the reasons why some wags dismiss this place as a "Radioactive Disneyland." One cannot doubt the pathos of this place, the reality of loss - even as one may hardly forgo the reality that every photograph taken by every tourist (mine included) have been well rehearsed.

But given the constant crunch of broken glass, Chernobyl is no theme park attraction. SoloEast recommends that visitors wear thick-soled boots, which is damned good advice. Because I wanted to limit the weight of my travel bag, I seriously considered bringing shoes better suited for a business meeting than for this decaying place. Only at the last minute did I realize the foolishness of my plan and dress for the environment. And sure enough, with every creaking floor and sagging roof, with every breaking shard of glass under my feet, and with every scrape against some protruding jab of rusting metal, I grew ever more grateful for those bulky, uncomfortable, heavy shoes. The song in my head all day? That silly Australian PSA jingle, Dumb Ways to Die.

We concluded our tour by climbing the steps of a 16-story building to get one last view of the region. We huffed and sweated our way to the roof and stared down at the city. A breeze blew and birds sang, and we could almost imagine the forest plodding its way toward the center of Pripyat, consuming the concrete and metal and moldering paper, transforming all that dead material into some new living thing. Clouds rolled overhead and the sun glowed silver. Then Igor announced one last stop before we descend the stairs: a special treat, he said, for the two Japanese tourists in our group. A dead dog on the 16th floor. He told me that some folks from Japan claim this to be the most meaningful and memorable part of their visit. Igor mused that one guy photographed the decaying animal for 45 minutes.

Yasushi and Chihiro, however, were not excited to photograph a dead dog. I snapped some images, but I soon wished I had not. If there is any moment that signifies why some critics refer to these trips as "Disaster Porn," this was it. Nonetheless I understood what Igor tried to do. He was evoking the Japanese concept of Mono no aware, an encounter with transience that is sad and wistful but also appreciative. It would be silly of me to ascribe my own reasons to visit Chernobyl to this concept. As I lack the linguistic flexibility to properly speak Japanese, I also lack the cultural nuance to fully contemplate Mono no aware. I was a Chernobyl tourist, no different from the thousands that have proceeded me.

So I bought cheesy souvenirs and took typical pictures. I then used Photoshop and HDR software to enhance the images, to convey some sense of my experiences here. With each step, and with every story I will tell about this place, I grow more and more removed from that final glimpse at the tower overlooking Pripyat. It becomes a series of self-contained moments, anecdotes, picturesque frames. Nonetheless, I can still hear those birds singing in the empty town, and I can remember the dance of dust particles as I swatted debris from my shoes and clothes.

And then it's time to leave. To depart the Exclusion Zone you pass through a minimum of two radiation detectors. The process is strangely perfunctory. You stand in an upright machine, your head resting against a gadget and your arms raised to either side. You place your hands into reading devices and wait for barely a second, wondering if the Russian word for "clean" will glow its faintly friendly affirmation. It does, but you're not sure if you can proceed, even as you feel the metal door unclick beside your waist. Later you learn that only a shrieking alarm will signal that you've carried some radioactive particle on your shoes. Otherwise you are clean. The machine says so. Still, you will always wonder.

One additional note: I took over 700 photographs in two days. This blog-post includes a small selection of them. Want to see a few more of my favorite images? Point your browser to my Facebook Album.