31 July 2006

It's just like Italy!

This is the only place I’ve been in Central Asia where I’ve experienced any kind of come-ons by strangers. When I lived in Uzbekistan, my theory was that a modicum of moderate dress meant that I benefited from the cultural attitudes towards women that prevented approaching strangers in the street– and that worked just fine. It was nothing like Italy, or Portugal, where I’ve experienced men propositioning me or making suggestive comments on the street. But yesterday, Erica and I and a western man who lives in Dushanbe we walking down the park that divides the boulevard near our apartment. We pass a bench of three older men, with white beards, skullcaps, traditional dress. Assalom Aleikum, one of the says. Aleikum Assalom, Erica politely responds. One then says Mojyena? [which is a Russian word which translates ‘is it possible?’] Our stride doesn't break and none of the men on the bench speak further, and we are left to puzzle over the meaning of a question we have no desire to understand further.

After dinner last night, Erica and I are walking back to the apartment, crossing the same park in the middle of the boulevard to make the turn to our street. A man falls into step behind us, addressing us in Russian. “Ladies, are you bored? Is it too boring? Are you bored?” Then he says “be careful there is a car” because we are of course crossing the road as one does here, one lane at a time or just stepping into the street and adjusting one’s pace to wait for the car in the next lane to go by. (of course, I wouldn't have understood any of that exchange other than the car warning, but Erica's excellent Russian once again helped out.)

Neither incident had any menace, but they were just curiously unusual for the region.

Dining out

Our brunch Sunday was at the expat hangout which had great cappuccinos but was ridiculously expensive. We finally ventured out for dinner around 7:30 or so, intending to walk by a place we saw on our way to the bazaar to check it out. But we got sidetracked by a festive sounding outdoor place, and then we realized someone somewhere had mentioned it to us, so we took a seat and had a really lovely, somewhat Iranian meal on a patio next to a stagnant fountain. Neither of us wants to continue with the malarial medicine, so we weren’t thrilled with the mosquitoes. But the music was really good (genuine live music, not the Bishkek kind where “live music” is the advertisement for karaoke), the food was tasty (although I find the prevalence of mayonnaise in a region of intermittent refrigeration somewhat puzzling), and we were back in the realm of $4 meals. Plus we got to watch a group of 50ish folks dancing with great enthusiasm, causing us to speculate why it is in America that dancing is seen as an activity for the young.

still riveted by the satellite tv

The array of stations is amazing. There are channels from Russia, Kazakhstan, China (including CCTV news which is China news broadcast in English), France, Spain, Portugal, a whole Italian section, Libya, Qatar, Saudia Arabia, Yemen (which was broadcasting what looked like a school play; there were three characters on stage, 2 men and a woman, and the woman was wearing a full burka, so when she spoke you couldn’t really hear her lines), Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Sudan (which was broadcasting a show of a guy sitting at a news anchor-like desk with an old school laptop open in front of him who was giving some sort of computer instruction with screenshots popping up in back of him), Oman, a station called El Iraqia (we thought that might be Iraq), Algeria, Egypt (Nile News – 2 channels’ worth), of course Al Jazeera, a truly dizzying array of sex voice chat advertisements from around the world, and a puzzling number of music video channels also from around the world. Apparently the music video is the international language.

More trouble with telecom

On the way to the bazaar we saw some pay phones, and I of course had to take some pictures. I’m an odd kind of tourist, constantly snapping pictures, but largely of signs of Internet or phone services, or phones on the street, etc. Many of the pay phones on the street look decrepit, or are missing actual phones. But we saw close to the bazaar a series of pay phone booths (they are not really booths, but the half enclosure you see in the US most often), with the pay phones that hang on the back of the booth missing or clearly inoperative. But a phone that looks like what you find in an apartment or a shop – just a regular phone that usually gets plugged into a land line -- is tethered to the bottom part of the platform, and people are making calls from it. I’m still not sure whose line it is, or what the pay scheme is, but that’s a question to get answered tomorrow.

stocking up for the apartment

Erica and I went to the Green Bazaar this afternoon for some supplies for the apartment. Toilet paper, water, fruit, that sort of thing. We got some amazing nectarines and grapes and figs, some fresh nan (bread), some tea, eggs, and cheese. During our walk through the bazaar and shopping, we picked up an entourage of young boys who really wanted to carry our stuff for us, convinced our bags were too heavy for us. The entourage got a little annoying, but they were very good natured. And at one point Erica tried to give one of them a one somani note, but he waved her away and looked rather offended. It appeared he wanted to earn the money, not just be given it as a handout.

The bazaar was similar to the ones we had both shopped in before, especially in Uzbekistan. Incredible fruits and vegetables this time of year, the dried fruits and nuts, the clothing section, the hardware section with old pipes and rubber boots and jars and random molded plastic car parts, the fifteen kinds of honey in old jars. But neither of us had ever picked up a train of young boys before. And there were more men that I recall from other bazaars, although the produce parts were still dominated by women. But we rounded a corner in the hardware section (this is all outside, in the hot summer sun, though some parts are covered), and a row of men were standing on a concrete slab facing one way. It appeared to be prayer time.

There were more local goods, and the old Soviet things I recall from Uzbekistan back in 2000. There were lots of chickpeas and lentils, lots of cloth for traditional clothing which the women wear here more than I’ve seen in any other Central Asian capital, not as much of the imported goods from China that can be seen all over Bishkek, and the occasional pair of men playing checkers behind a produce stand.

Satellite TV near the Afghan border

Dushanbe is relatively close to Afghanistan. Maybe 100 km. We were warned about heroin use being rampant since so much of the drug trade apparently funnels through here. But we’ve seen no evidence of that – unless you count the Mercedes and Audis that roam the streets.

We relocated from the Hotel Tajikistan to an apartment we rented in the city center. Less than half the price and much more comfortable than the former Intourist megacomplex. So we had brunch with an expat in Dushanbe, then retired back to our luxurious new digs to wilt in the heat for a bit. And then we got the satellite tv working. Oh, hooray. I’ve been a little starved for news, so I was very happy to get to some bbc. And so we found the channel, and started watching, and the attack on the UN building in Beruit unfolded before us, a response to the Israeli attack on Qata that killed dozens of children. It was horrifying and amazing to watch the demonstration grow, and advance, and eventually surge through the gates of the UN building. (Not to mention surreal moments like the cameras pan of the crowd and the various flags being carried that included one with a hammer and sickle.) One of the BBC reporters got into the building with a camera rolling, so we saw footage of people with baseball bats going at glass doors, kicking chairs, clearly venting overflowing anger. There was violence, but it looked like the expression of frustration rather than…well…something more random. So we watched for some time as the protest escalated, and then the camera pulled back, and we could see a Muslim cleric gesturing at the crowd from near the entrance to the building. There were guards there, too – apparently from the Lebanese militia. The cleric was gesturing broadly, his arms swinging wide, directing people. From the camera vantage point it was difficult at first to discern, but then it became clear he was turning people from the building, urging them to head towards the square to continue the protest without the violence. The reporter narrated the change in the crowd’s mood. It was amazing and distressing to watch that event unfold, but we also felt lucky that we got to see it as we did, uncertain of whether it would even be covered in the US press.

the sims (no, not the game)

Once we were settled at the hotel, we went out for lunch. My first errands: change money, then get a sim card. The first few places we walked into to change we located in electronics shops. Just a small window in a sea of cell phones and accessories and motherboards mounted on the wall like displays on mannequins of the latest fashions. The change places in Bishkek, at least the small cluster around TSUM (state department store) were, by contrast, located in jewelry shops. A little insight into what kind of major purchases people make with some regularity…

To get the sim they needed a passport. Also different from Kyrgyzstan where a small vendor at the bazaar happily sold me two sim cards with no identity check. We had lots of plans to choose from, but I went for the prepay from Babilon mobile. Full service – they put the sim in for me, dialed in and did the pin. Had some trouble with the phone, asked if it was from America. No, I said, from the Netherlands (I purchased it in the Amsterdam airport on my way over since my other travel phone has been dying the last few trips). So they tried again, got it registered, called me from the shop phone to make sure it was working, then wrote down my phone number for me, and then showed me how to check my balance. A really nice start to the visit here.


Flying over the Pamirs is kind of breathtaking. Someday I want to see them up close.

As we landed at the Dushanbe airport under a cloudless blue sky, I could see a series of military jets underneath the airplane hanger equivalent of a carport, only arced. And as the airplane taxied towards stairs that would be rolled up to the plane so we could alight and board the bus which would take us to the terminal, the flagger on the runway appeared out my window. He was grasping what looked like giant old-school flyswatters, or maybe ping-pong paddles with longer handles – one red and one green – the bicycle he had ridden out to the middle of the runway laying on its side behind him.

This is the first time I’ve been to a place that was recently in war. The guidebook says Dushanbe is the prettiest of the Central Asian capitals, which seemed improbable given the many year civil war and the city-wide curfew that existed until 2002, but it’s true. The architecture here is amazing, the roads are in great shape in the city (the main boulevard was repaved last week for the visit of the presidents of Iran and Afghanistan, but apparently the road was fine before that), the fountains are all working, and the streetlights get turned on at night. We’re both a little puzzled and are trying to figure this place out.

Some estimates say that up to 50% of the country's economic activity is related to the opium that flows through. I have no idea if that bears any relationship to the truth.

There are, of course, still remnants of the war. It destroyed the city’s water filtration system, so the water comes directly from the river. That means silt and pebbles and plant matter can flow from the faucet. And it also destroyed the city’s heating system, though that’s not such an issue for us visiting when the temps are in the 105 range.


Last week, in Kyrgyzstan, we did some of our design ethnography work in a place outside the capital. For various logistical reasons we ended up in a city called Karabalta, relatively close to Bishkek. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we found out the day before our visit that Karabalta was a twin city, that half of it was one of the old closed Soviet cities (uranium close by), the cities that had no names but we known only by numbers, like postboxes, so were sometimes called Pochtayali (I’m massacaring that Russian word, I know).

We ended up walking around what had been the closed city, and it was a little slice of the CCCP. Hammer and sickle statuary, including a giant art nuveaux one. A large, silver Lenin, still in a place of honor in the park. Street names and murals remained, and we stayed in a sports stadium that had dorm-like rooms (girls in one room, boys in another) for about $2.50 per bed with a bathroom that defies words, and a shower downstairs that one arranged ahead of time. We were told when we “checked in” that it took an hour for the hot water to be ready, then that was enough for 2-3 people, then it would take another hour to be ready again. We showered in stages. An old man leads you downstairs to a hallway, down which is a large locker room with a smaller room inside with the spigot. He explains that he will lock the metal grate at the entrance to the hallway behind you as a safety measure, and when you are done, you must rattle the bars of the grate and call for him and he will come let you out. Generally speaking, I try not to think about fire codes when I am in this region.

I showered with my shoes on.

24 July 2006

Caption this picture

Emma had the brilliant suggestion of a caption-writing contest.
Winner gets a Central Asian treasure.

The Tien Shan

On Saturday, the group of students from American University in Central Asia who are helping us with our research arranged an outing for us in the mountains. Kyrgyzstan is known for its mountains, and it's a little shameful that this is my fourth trip and I haven't yet been to see them (or to Lake Issykul, but that's another matter I hope to resolve sometime soon). So they showed up in the morning and we went over the project, then someone left to go get the driver. It was amashrutka driver who apparently ditched his route for the day. One of the students had met him earlier that day and decided he seemed like a nice guy, so we piled into his van, stopped for fruit and drinks on the way out of town, then headed to Ala-Archa, a national park near Bishkek. The mountains were, to say it utterly inadequately, impressive. Glacial, towering, sharply steep...the Tien Shan. We walked up a bit dragging food (Erica carring a ginormous watermelon that made her biceps sore), a Central Asia grill, and what seemed like two sheeps' worth of meat.

We found a perfect spot on the banks of a rushing, gray, glacial river...cold, cold, and the perfect refrigeration for our drinks and melon.

The students from AUCA set up the grill and charcoal, and we had a long afternoon of shashlik...a little too long since the amount of meat was probably more appropriate for the garrison of soldiers we encountered in the woods on our walk. So we were there till past 7pm, waiting for the skewers of meat to cook, feeling the evening cool rapidly as the sun went behind the mountains, but utterly enjoying the remarkable surroundings.


So here we are, four days into a week of research designed to culiminate in some ideas for mobile social software for the developing world. I'm blogging from my "bed" on the livingroom couch in the apartment I'm sharing with three UW students on a 28.8 dialup connection, and luxuriating in the fact that it's nearly 9am and I haven't yet had to rush out to an Internet cafe to print out consent forms for an impending interview.

We're having a great time. Although the apartment situation has some reality show overtones, things are running remarkably smoothly. Tomorrow we hop into a mashrutka (share minibus) for a trip to a town called Karabata, a former industrial town somewhere near the border of Kazakhstan, about 2 hours away. We’ll do a second round of interviews there, and then spend the night (our team of 4 and the 3 translators) in a 2 room apartment, then hop another share minbus back to town. One student, Mark, goes home that night, and then we do a day of debrief, then Emma heads home and Erica and I are off to Tajikistan.

The city looks great, at least in the center where we have been spending our time. Lots of new stores, good streets, new cars – BMWs and Audis and Mercedes – and it is thoroughly unclear where, exactly, the money is coming from. There’s still lots of shuttle traders going back and forth to China (and flying back and forth to Korea), but there is clearly wealth here and no one seems able to account for it. The best explanation we’ve heard is international aid – but that hardly accounts for a GDP. When we get out to the region we’ll see a more realistic picture of the country which should be telling.

I've always found Bishkek the friendliest Central Asian city, and it's definitely living up to that reputation. Things here can be downright easy. Erica pointed me to the most amazingly efficient travel agency (Kyrgyz Concept, if you find youself in Bishkek; they rock), shopping is transparent and pleasant, and although the city seems to slow a bit in the heat, there's a lovely rhythym to life here.

11 July 2006

Etiquette question

I just got off a conference call with some folks in India. As we were waiting for the call to start, my colleague Chris and I were doing some morning news surfing, and I was reading about the series of bomb blasts that hit the commuter railway in Mumbai. The call was taking longer to set up than anticipated, and we speculated that, although our conference was scheduled with people in Delhi, no doubt the rash of attacks had slowed the evening commute there as well. Once the call began, we wanted to communicate our awareness and empathy about the attacks. But we looked at each other blankly, not quite sure what the etiquette was, or what kind of social platitude one uses for expressing condolences over terrorist attacks. Any suggestions?

09 July 2006

Liminal travel

The thing about Central Asia (which is the focus of much of my research , is that it's not easily shelved. I don't mean that it's a region that shouldn't be ignored (which is true, but not the point here), but that it's sort of in the middle of everything.

Central Asia straddles most of the boundaries used to demarcate the world. Go to BBC or CNN or the NYTimes, and look at their world map. Where would you click to get the news about Kyrgyzstan? Or, more relevantly for me, what shelf do you look on in the travel section of the bookstore to see if Lonely Planet has a new edition of their Central Asia volume? Is it under Asia? Middle East? Eastern Europe? Turns out everyone makes their own choice, because it's a liminal place. It cascades chaotically across our neat geographical boundaries, it aligns with different sections of the colored map depending on who's doing the drawing.

I'm now used to the fact that this project takes more time to coordinate than many others I've worked on, that it has a unique set of demands that are a tremendous drain on time. But for heaven's sake. I know where the travel section is in the bookstore. Finding the book should have taken less than five minutes, not required me to finally give up (do they really not have it? Or is it just not the shelves I have checked? Because if I were looking for a book on Italy, I'd pretty much know immediately whether or not they had it. Either it would be on the shelf under Europe or it wouldn't. But maybe Central Asia is here somewhere, on some shelf, somewhere, but I just can't find it because I don't know how they've chosen to categorize it here) and seek out someone working at the boosktore so they could check their stock and see if it is out there somewhere.

I'm off to Bishkek in a little over a week. For some design ethnography research. It should be a fantastic trip. You'll hear more about that soon.

Yes, the NYT is a newspaper

I called the university library last week. I'd read something in the New York Times that I wanted to share with a grad student. But I'd read it over the weekend, in my paper version, and I couldn't remember the author. I had a vague idea it was an op-ed piece. And although I am a subscriber and so am eligible for the so-called Times Select service, I've thus far refused to sign up for it because I haven't found a way to anonymize my reading of Time Select pieces (whereas my 13-year-old login for the electronic NYT website isn't associated with my real name). In a flight of paranoia, I've decided I don't want my reading habits tracked to my real name. So, no Times Select for me. But I want to get this piece for Emma. So I call the library to see if we have university access to Times Select. We have access to the Times archive via our library subscriptions, but I'd need to know something like the title or the author to track down the piece. On the other hand, all I know is "it was in Sunday's edition." A difficult search criteria given the way library databases are built.

A young man answers the phone. I explain my problem. He thinks for a moment, then says he doesn't know, but he'll forward me to the microfilm and periodicals person. But first he pauses, to make sure he's transferring me to the right person. "The NYT is a newspaper, right?"


The final piece of my trip to Kenya was a one-day visit to a place called Sauri. A small village in western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, Sauri is one of the Millenium Project Villages run by the Earth Institute at Columbia. I made the visit as a favor to some folks I knew who were interested in learning about the village, and since they knew I was on my way to Kenya, they asked if I could stop by during my trip. I only had a day, but it was amazing how many interviews one can pack into daylight hours.

Ouko and I flew out together to Kisumu early in the morning, and we met with the head of the local office in town. Then we were scheduled to head out to the field office. When we came downstairs to head to the truck, there was a woman waiting at the office, a professor emeritus from Columbia who worked on family planning. She was on her way to Uganda, but wanted to visit Sauri first. So she hopped into the truck with us for the drive out to the village. When we got to the field office (where we were going to check on some reported problems with their Internet connectivity), there was a guy from Britain who currently teaches agriculture in Uganda who also was in the area and had heard about the project, and wanted to take a look. So he jumped in the truck with us, too. By the time we got to the first meeting in the village, we also met up with two members of the Kenyan office of ActionAid. We'd turned into quite an entourage, but I got the impression that wasn't uncommon.

We met with the coordinating committe of the village, saw the health clinic, visited the primary school, talked with some teachers, saw the new kitchen and learned about the school feeding program, saw the electricity that had been run to the school and the giant transformer stranded on the front lawn waiting for the right engineer to come by and step down the power, met with the agricultural committee, talked with the infrastructure guy, visited a water project, saw the impressive corn crop that had benefited from improved seeds and fertilizer, and then met with some folks outside of the village. It was a very interesting day, and Ouko and I learned a surprising amount in a short time span.

I'm not going to write much more about it here, at least not now. But feel free to contact me if you want to know more.

The trouble with telecom

Last night I hosted a going away party for my friend David and his partner Sarah. David, who is the person who harassed me until I started this blog, has now informed me that I am in grave, grave danger for my long absence from posting. So, like a chastened student, I will post:

Still with Kenya on my mind, and thinking about all the things that contribute to development...one thing I learned from that recent trip was the really crucial role communications technologies play in just getting things done. I'm not talking anything fancy, but just being able to place a phone call makes all the difference.

Several years ago I complained to a friend that while I was pretty good at travelling, the one thing that completely baffles me is telecom on the road. Figuring out how to use a pay phone (this was before cell phones) and what numbers to dial is one of those undocumented pieces of local lore. Sure, the Lonely Planet has some tips, but they're not always current. These days, I have given up trying. I buy my local sim, pop it in my phone, and then go up to a stranger and hold out the phone with the simple words, "can you please help me?" I'll hand them the local number and ask them what I need to dial. In some places (Kyryzstan comes to mind), the prefix you have to dial varies depending on the recipient's cell carrier. Which means when you get someone's phone number, you have to ask them whose sim they have. If you live there long enough, you start to recognize the prefixes as proprietary to one carrier or another. But if you're in the country for 3 or 4 days, it's not exactly a transparent process.

So in Kenya, while cell phones are popular, the cost of making a call is still prohibitive. Something on the order of US$0.30 per minute.That's cell to cell. Go from cell to landline and the cost skyrockets. So much for the promise of leapfrogging technologies. A person doing research there said that the sheer economic barrier of making a call means she makes choices every day about what kind of things don't have to get done that day. And it's not like everyone is checking email all the time. And it's not like Nairobi is so quick and easy to navigate across town that face-to-face communications are the answer.

And as for Internet, leaving aside South Africa, there's no cable connection in sub-Saharan Africa for Internet connectivity. It's all satellite, which means it's all ridiculously, horrifyingly expensive. That's old news to many of my colleagues, I know. But I still think it bears repeating.