Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shopping for Poo

Grocery shopping, at times, has taken over my trip. At the beginning of the new year I spent 10 days in Bangkok doing an assortment of things: medical work, teeth cleaning, health classes, detox, etc. A woman I met at the detox center recommended a book on Thai cooking when it became apparent that I was not going to be able to fit the Thai cooking class into my already packed schedule. My quest for this famous book called “Cooking with Poo” led me to every bookstore between the Siam and Thong Lo BTS stations. This seemed a considerable distance to walk. There are loads of bookstores in the Siam area where I began the journey so I figured it would not be difficult to find this popular book. 

When people call things popular, there’s a reason. Bookstores were completely sold out. I asked the cashier to check the stock at other stores in the area at every bookstore. When we found the book nearby, I would rush (well, I guess walking doesn’t count as rushing) to the next store only to find that they were not actually in stock. Either someone had bought it in the 30 minutes it took me to find the next store or, the computer was just flat out wrong about what was in stock. Finally finding the book after a three hour journey, I sat down at my favorite street stall with a mango smoothie and wrote a list of the ingredients I would need to complete the recipes that I wanted to try back in Kyiv. 

I then went to my first Thai grocery store. It was delightful to walk down the aisles and see all the products with seaweed, the different kinds of snacks, dried fruits, vegetables and fresh fruits. They also had Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian and Western selections. How amazing to be able to find everything! Back in the day when I lived in Hefei, Anhui Province, China, I rejoiced when I Carrefour came to the area and I could buy cheese. Before that, in Yongchuan, I would travel 45 minutes from my university by bus to the city to buy 3 year old tomato paste which I used to make Ketchup. The only westernish food I could find, I believe I was also the only one of a handful of Westerners in the city to actually buy it. I realized this after I noticed that the stock only decreased in size after I came and bought some. These experiences led me to really appreciate a well-stocked supermarket like the ones in Bangkok.   

My shopping took 4 days for two reasons. One, I could only carry so much at one time and many of the items I bought were bottles of different oils that were heavy. Two, I could not identify all of the items. While I could have 3 suitcases at 70 pound each on my flights from Bangkok to Kyiv, I did not want to have three suitcases full of things that I bought by mistake. Some of the ingredients like the soft beans or certain spices I had to Google. I do not read or speak Thai and needed to see what the outside of the can might look like so that I could get the right thing. Not having a smart phone or iPad I drew pictures of the labels that then drew laughter when I showed it to people in the stores. Having perfected the art of using crazy drawings and hand gestures, I followed the sound of their laughter to the product I was looking for. Over 4 days and 3 supermarkets I had the ingredients I needed to make the recipes. I confess I bought an extra suitcase on my last day to take it all home.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012


I wasn't aware that anything was amiss as I ran a micro-teaching session and gave feedback. Even when I got a text from a woman who works for another program saying, "Can't leave the house. Can you..." with specific instructions to do something, it did not register that something was wrong. Hmmm. I wonder what's happening with her. I then got another text from a good friend that works at ISAF saying "On lockdown. Will probably last a few days." Oh, I thought. How disappointing. I hoped to see her this weekend. And yet, I still did not relate it to me.

At the end of the day when we packed everything up and were walking to the car I was going slowly so that I could enjoy the sun on my skin. At the house we have blast film covering all of the windows and very little sunlight comes through. The blast film also blocks out certain elements that make it impossible to grow plants and gives you a vitamin D deficiency. I soak up all the sun I can between walks from the car to buildings and back to the car again. We arrived at the car and normally the Afghan staff rides back to the office with us. Today Bella explained to them that it was too dangerous and that they should go by taxi. "Why?" They questioned.

 "There are reports that they are stopping cars and shooting Westerners." The Afghans immediately turned and walked away. My mouth dropped open. "They're doing what?" Fear coiled in the base of my stomach. We got into the car and drove out of the university. Our PSD (private security detail) reloaded and checked his gun. After a tense but uneventful ride home, I stayed outside a little while to play with the dogs. They are street dogs that live in the bombed out ruins of a house next door. The sweetest dogs ever, they let us know when anyone unknown is on the street. When there was just two of them, I used to save bits of meat from my lunch to give them. They have grown to a pack of four adults, 4 puppies and some on the way puppies. After petting the dogs for 10 minutes, one of the PSDs drove up with a housemate and said "Get inside." I followed his orders.

When I walked into the house I passed the white board where we write our name, locations and time in and time out of the house. There were big black letters that said "No movement." It was official. We were on lockdown.The first few hours of lockdown I was very agitated because there is so little that we are allowed to do for security reasons that I always look forward to dinners out at some of the restaurants around town. I was sitting in my room, eating leftovers and on the net when Bella called me and said, "Grab your pillows and get down here." Being one to always obey reasonable orders, I grabbed my pillow and went downstairs to find Bella and Sandra sitting on the bed propped up by loads of pillows with a computer at their feet. The computer had a cartoon desert on the screen and was propped up by a makeshift stand of books.

"Join us." Bella said, patting the space next to her. As I sat down and snuggled under the covers she started the movie from the beginning. "We're watching Pussy Boots."

"Um, OK." Having lived outside the States for many years, I find it hard to keep up with the movies and shows that are coming out or popular. Preferring to be active and social, I always do my movie watching in groups, on airplanes or in odd situations like this one. With the first scene of the cat waking up, stealing and then running off with a ring, I was hooked. We laughed our way through the movie and I happily returned to my room afterwards to get some sleep. 

The next day I woke up excited to walk to the French Bakery (with a PSD) and get my weekly spicy beef pie. Then I remembered it was day two of lockdown. Momentarily annoyed, I let it pass and then got to work before ending up sitting in the kitchen with Sandra for a couple hours as she cooked what turned out to be an amazing dinner for the 6 people living in the house. After the dinner of fried fish, beets, rice and dahl we, the three girls, ended back in Bella's room for Dirty Dancing and crafts night. Turns out that the lockdown has been beneficial in helping me slow down and spend some time good friends.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Travel Tip: Having Things To Do

 On a trip to Paris last year I found myself having feelings of unhappiness. What is this? I thought to myself. Who is unhappy in Paris? Turns out I had forgotten one of the cardinal rules of traveling: Always work something that you do at home (wherever that is) and/or are passionate about into your schedule. I had arrived in Paris to visit someone. The visit was not going well and my found my discontent spilling over into my feelings about Paris. Determined to change this, on my very last day in Paris I went to a Tango class at Tan-Go-In. Having found the class 1 hour before it started, I had to get ready and make an epic dash from one end of the city to another.

 Obviously, since I had somewhere to be, every single train I got on either stopped for 5 minutes at every other station or in the middle of a tunnel due to some malfunction. Amazingly, I rushed to the street address, 323, rue Saint-Martin, just 5 minutes late. I looked at the number on the building and hesitated. I wasn't sure which doorway the number indicated. The most likely location looked like a studio selling artwork. There were no lights on and I could not see anyone inside. I decided to go through the big black doors to the left. Luckily, someone came out of the doors as I made up my mind and I slipped in behind him. This was not the place. Going back outside I was again standing in front of this art gallery. Why not? I thought and rang the bell.

 A thin man appeared from subterranean depths (this sounds much better than he walked up the stairs. Work with me ;) ). He wore his long dark hair in a ponytail clasped together at the base of his neck, a white v-neck sweater and dark pants. Unlocking the door (I had tried it earlier) he asked, with raised eyebrows, what I wanted. We worked out that I was terribly sorry for being late and I really was desperate to get into the Tango class. He turned and led me down the spiraling staircase and through a curtain into a marvelous dance room. I was able to join the class, had an amazing time and was invited to the weekly Milonga that evening (well, to be honest, everyone was).  Leaving the dance studio feeling extremely euphoric I realized that Paris had a golden hue again (OK, so the sun HAD come out that afternoon, but I was shining from the inside as well). Embraced by these feelings of happiness and goodwill I roamed about the city having a great time and making a mental note to always, always arrange to spend at least one day of a trip doing something that you love. It just might save your relationship, or, in my case, it saved the trip.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Afghanistan National Institute of Music

"I'm tired," he said, "tired of the media's portrayal of Afghanistan as a place without hope." Afghanistan National Institute of Music's (ANIM) director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast began as he introduced "The Second Annual Winter Music Celebration" on Wednesday, February 8th. Those of us in the community that signed up to attend the free concerts had been forewarned to arrive early to go through security at the French Institute where the concert was held. Not to worry about seating because the venue holds 450 people and only 250 people have responded. Dr. Sarmast was addressing an auditorium of over 450 people as he began his introduction. People were standing in the back and against the side rows near the walls of the auditorium.

"The students of our school, some are street kids or orphans with little to look forward to have had their lives transformed." He gestured to the children and teens sitting on the stage around him holding their instruments ready to begin the concert.

"They are productive members of society. They are musicians and professionals and they give back to society. This shows us that Afghanistan IS a place of hope." After the culmination of his speech, the audience broke into an appreciative applause. Those of us that live here and see the day-to-day moments see that there is hope. The people that I work with and coach at the university are committed to improving themselves in their profession. Applying themselves, for the most part, wholeheartedly to this endeavor. The children and students that they teach, some like the ones at Razia's Ray of Hope Foundation are so committed to going to school, they will walk what the average westerner would consider an extraordinary distance for the privilege of an education. But this is not the news the media portrays which is why people probably did not even know that there was a fantastic concert of amazing upcoming musicians trained at ANIM. This article from the Huffington Post has more information on the background of the school and children.

This concert was the last in a season that included guests artists from around the world like: Mashal Arman, Anne LeBozec, Kimball Gallagher and Marc Uys. Students also occasionally performed. I was happily surprised with one performance by a young man who sang "Somewhere" from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. I was immediately transported back to the Chicago of my youth and singing along to a record of my father's high school performance as Riff in a production of the musical (the cast sounded pretty good for a high school!). Other favorites included "Ferdinand the Bull, for solo violin and piano" composed by Alan Ridout and performed by Marc Uys and "Dishab Ke Chunay" (arr. William Harvey) which is a traditional Afghan song. The final concert ingeniously mixed Western and Afghan music to create a new and vibrant sound. The last piece that they played, "Bolero" composed by Maurice Ravel, again arranged by William Harvey was played by the Afghan Youth Orchestra and was an amazing rendition of the music, played as if it had always been meant for the rubab.

I am really looking forward to the Third Annual Afghanistan Winter Music Academy next year and seeing the progress of these highly talented young people.

Another write up on the school from the Wall Street Journal in 2010. The words quoted in the first few paragraphs are taken from memory and represent the general expression of what Dr. Sarmast said, not entirely the exact statement.

Whale Sharks

After a very heavy training schedule this winter, I'm off (in a few weeks) for a vacation to see whale sharks at Donsol. I will be using Donsol Eco Tours to book and plan my trip. The itinerary includes two days snorkeling with whale sharks, daily horse riding, scuba diving, a scuba EMF course, and a firefly tour. More to come after the trip...