Category: Travels

Baku bits, what to see in Baku

The vertigo starts, as upon arrival in the airport there are few direct clues as to which country you might be in.  You will see people from every part of this hemisphere, and furthermore the Azerbaijanis won’t stand out as such.  The facility itself looks like an average of five or six other airports, like how some TV shows film in Canada to get that generically American look.

Matters seem to go downhill as one rides into town — “Dubai, yet without the charm” is how I described it to Yana in an early, premature email.  Yet this petro-city grows on you quickly, and I don’t just mean the cherry jam.  Closer to town center there are interesting buildings in every direction, and of three sorts: the medieval Old City with walls, a blossoming of late 19th century European architecture (and they are still doing contemporary copies of it), and the Brasilia-Dubai like modern buildings.

In 1905 about half of the world’s oil was produced in or near Baku.  In 1942, it was Stalingrad that stopped Hitler from taking the place over and perhaps changing the course of history.  Not long ago, oil and gas were estimated to account for sixty percent of the gdp of Azerbaijan.

And you can see that money being spent, to the benefit of the tourist I might add.  Baku has perhaps the most attractive and walkable seaside promenade.  The walker has views of the Caspian, of spectacular buildings, of the port, and there are multiple paths with beautiful gardens and cactuses and baobab trees, benches everywhere, Eurasians in abundance, and in August the weather is perfect for a long stroll every night.

Baku is reputed to be the world’s lowest capital city, standing about 28 meters below sea level.

It is the first Shiite country I have visited, and it seems less conservative than say the Turkey of ten years ago, for instance in terms of dress and demeanor.  A small percentage of women wear burkhas, most of all by the seaside walk, but the look of their companions suggests most are tourists or expats.

In short, several generations of communist-enforced atheism do have a persistent effect.  One Azerbaijani, with whom I had an extended dialogue through a translator, stressed to me how much universal Soviet education elevated the region (and she was not pro-Soviet or pro-communist by any means).  The Azerbaijanis address me in Russian, as few can converse with ease in English.

The police go to great lengths to limit jaywalking, which is in any case dangerous.  The city roads are wide, and like some parts of central Brasilia have few traffic lights.  Never have I wished so often that I was on the other side of the street as in Baku.

Baku has three working synagogues, and, unlike in almost every other country in the world, they do not require police protection.  It is a remarkably safe city.

There is strong sentiment here that Nagorno-Karabakh, technically a part of Azerbaijan but not controlled by the government in over twenty years, is ruled by “Armenian terrorists,” backed by Putin. This issue, largely neglected outside the region, is likely to flare up again.  When I applied for a visa, I had to answer whether I come from Armenian blood (no).  It seems like a much less friendly conflict than say between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Baku was the easternmost part of the Roman Empire — does that make it European?

“Relatives may eat your flesh but they won’t throw away your bones” is an old Azerbaijani saying.

Newborns are washed in salt water, to make them truthful and bold.

As a vacation spot, I recommend three to four days here for anyone looking for something off the beaten path, but without logistical difficulties.  Here is Wikipedia on Baku.

A dialogue in Seherli Tandir restaurant, this evening

There are three tables, all close enough to chat, and at them there was TC, a Saudi family with a husband, two kids and a woman in full burkha, and a woman from a fine New York City neighborhood, perhaps 65 years old.  Suddenly, the NYC woman paused from her chat with me:

NYC woman, to Saudi table: (With a strong NYC accent) So where are you all from?

Saudi Man: Saudi Arabia.

NYC woman: Is that your wife in there?

Saudi Man: Yes.

NYC woman: Is she driving yet?

Saudi Man: No

NYC woman: Why not?

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: I was just wondering, because they made such a big deal out of it on TV.  And I was thinking maybe they aren’t all driving yet.

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: But why not?

Saudi Man: Madam, you live in New York City.  Are you driving yet?

Kiev notes

The city has some of the best Soviet war memorials, noting that the text at the main Babi Yar monument does not in fact refer to “Jews.”  The museums are much better than expected, with at least five worthy of a visit, including the National Museum, the folk art museum, Scythian gold museum, and Russian art museum, and the Khanenko museum.

I am underwhelmed by the economy here, and Kiev is one of the least bustling national capitals I have seen, especially for a country of its size.  The distribution of stores and commercial ventures is so thin as to remind me of some parts of San Francisco.  Yes, this is August but still the streets feel empty, even in the center of town.  Maybe especially in the center of town.  The earlier Soviet infrastructure has not been built over, and the basic outline of the city does not yet feel “post-reform.”

Poland and Ukraine had about the same per capita gdp in 1992, but now Poland’s is three times higher.  Even Russian wages are twice as high.  The Ukrainian economy has shrunk 17.8% since 2008, and that is not even counting the loss of territory, which still counts statistically as part of Ukrainian gdp.

Markers of the new, post-2014 Ukrainian nationalism are seen frequently, and the use of the Russian language is actively discouraged.

There is a brand or chain of Karaoke parlors called “MAFIA Karaoke.”

Unlike some parts of Moscow, there are few signs of a rip-off culture here with respect to tourists. The citizenry is unfailingly helpful when possible, though short answers are hard to come by.  People in random encounters seem quite willing to give all sorts of (wordy) advice as to what you should be doing and why.

Japanese restaurants are more common than Chinese.  After Italian, there is not much culinary diversity to be seen, but the Georgian restaurants are among the best in the city.  As for a single recommendation, Kanapa [Kanape] for “nouvelle Ukraine” would be my clear first pick, and it is on a picturesque street with many folk art stalls.

If two people each order bottles of mineral water, they will not open one bottle for each person.  Instead, they induce you to first share the first bottle, and then the second, in sequence.  Thus the water is not efficiently conserved.

It is remarkable how many different restaurants serve their chocolate ice cream with a basil leaf on top.

My Conversation with Juan Pablo Villarino

Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series.  We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men).  And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.

Here is the transcript and audio.

Here is one excerpt:

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…

For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .

And:

COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times [for being picked up hitchhiking].

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”

And:

COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall.  It starts with this:

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.

Alesund notes

Alesund, Norway is one of the most beautiful small cities in Europe.  The setting is picture-perfect, and much of the architecture was redone in 1904-1905 in Art Nouveau style, due to a fire that burned down the previous wooden structures.  The Art Nouveau murals in the town church deserve to be better known.

Image result for alesund norway

This time around, Norway seems vaguely affordable.  The food is “good enough,” especially if you like cod.  Dark chocolate ice cream is hard to come by.  Driving to the puffins takes 3-4 hours, though they are not always to be seen.

A microeconomic guide to travel, including Ethiopia

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:

I sometimes wish the market supplied “travel guides as if microeconomics really mattered.” Most guides outline the major sights and the best hotels, but what about the little things that make up so much of the value of a trip? Here’s my handy introduction to the micro side of travel, based on my recent 10-day stay in Ethiopia. You should consider investigating these same factors before choosing a destination:

How are the sidewalks?

I enjoy walking around cities, but it’s not just the quality of the architecture or the vitality of the street life that matter. The quality of the sidewalks is a central consideration, especially in emerging economies. What good are the sights if you are looking down all the time to avoid a slip or a broken ankle because of gaping holes? Sometimes major thoroughfares have no sidewalks at all.

I am happy to report that in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, the quality of the sidewalks and street paths is high enough to sustain productive walking with your head held high. Most of the time. B, and B+ outside the capital.

There is much more at the link, definitely recommended.

Seeing *Solo* in Addis Ababa

The movie was more or less watchable, in the modest sense of that term.

The subtitles were in Arabic, and the very nice theater was about 1/5 full.  And yes it was in 3-D.  No one seemed to react to the film at all.

The cinematic references were to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Snowpiercer, various James Bond movies, Enter the Dragon, and of course the other Star Wars installments, though never in interesting ways.

One of the characters did not understand subgame perfection.

At one point in the movie they happen across a bunch of people who are dressed like they could be in rural Ethiopia.

Woody Harrelson at times looked like Peter Sellers.

The leader of the rebel alliance was the best character.

By the end of the film, I didn’t seem to mind the whole thing, though I can’t explain why not.

My opinion of George Lucas continues to rise.

Especially prominent figures and concepts in Ethiopian Christianity

Yes there is Mary, Jesus. and the (Monophysite) Trinity, but beyond that literally every day I hear about the following from a very religious populace:

King Solomon

Queen of Sheba

The Ark of the Covenant: “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, or Tabot, in Axum. The object is currently kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Replicas of the Axum tabot are kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church, each with its own dedication to a particular saint; the most popular of these include Mary, George and Michael.”

St. George, slaying the dragon, he is prominent in church paintings.

Days of fasting, 55 a year, and thus Ethiopian restaurants are very good for vegetarians and vegans.

Addendum: from the comments, by Yves-Marie Slaughter:

55 is only the number of days of fasting during Lent, prior to Easter.

Total number of fasting days for a ‘normal’ Christian per year, would be closer to 155…

A monk may fast more than 200 days a year.

By the way, pork is prohibited altogether.

Gonder, Ethiopia

Gonder was at the height of its prosperity at the turn of the eighteenth century, when it may have had a population of seventy thousand.  Emperor Fasilidades, who founded the new capital around 1635, obviously hoped to create a strong center around which the remnants of the Christian north could rally.  He picked a beautiful site, a flat volcanic ridge at seven thousand feet surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with easy access to Lake Tana in the south.  Gonder’s climate is warm during the day, cool at night, its two streams afforded plentiful water supplies and its hinterland abundant wood and produce.

Enough of an urban economy arose to sustain architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions.  The emperors appeared in considerable state, surrounded by courtiers, clergy, and soldiers…

Image result for gondar ethiopia

The aristocracy and the monarchy supported the artists and artisans who put up buildings, illuminated manuscripts, decorates the interior of churches and palaces, and worked stone, wood, or pottery.  The town’s castles and other monuments were built of hewn brown basalt blocks and contained features that derived from Axumite and Zagwe times as well as Portuguese models.  They were concentrated in the center of the town, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional round, thatched, mud wattled homes of the people.

Image result for gondar ethiopia church

That is all from the excellent Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.

What should I ask Juan Villarino?

I’ll be doing a Conversation with him in early May.  He is often known as “the world’s greatest hitchhiker,” here is a NYT profile of him.  Excerpt:

Villarino has cataloged every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totaling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

He is from Argentina, and worked for a while in a Belfast cheese factory.  He is described as from a “downwardly mobile middle-class family” and:

In Buenos Aires, three men tried to mug him, but when they realized who he was, the thieves gave him money.

And:

They [Villarino and his wife] continue to live on about $7 a day each and travel as they always have, leading a life almost entirely on the highway, without a fixed address or jobs or bills.

Here is his blog and also a link to his self-published book.  Here is his blog in Spanish.  So what should I ask him?

Mexico City travel tips

I’m a loyal MR reader and follower of your work.  I’m so grateful for your work and your generous spirit.  I’m sure you get inundated with email and other correspondence but I’m adding to the pile by requesting that someday you’ll post advice for a Oaxaca or Mexico City visit.  I assure you that it would be carefully studied and utilized.

Happy Easter!

Here are my tips for Mexico City, taken from an email I sent to a friend a while ago, note I start with food but do not end there:

“1. Your number one task is to find a seller of tlacoyos in the street. This is likely a solo woman with a stand, on a corner. They are all over Mexico City, though whether in Condesa I am not sure. The vegetarian offerings are no worse, also, with beans and blue corn tortilla and cheese.  Get these, and they are in general quite sanitary.  You simply need to ask around, they will not be in highly visible places. I think about them often.

2. Ask for “tacqueria” rather than tacos, the latter might lead you into a restaurant.

2b. Most food in Condesa will be fine but underwhelming, think Clarendon. Try to find street food there.

3. The street food is the best food there and it is safer to eat than the restaurant food (though the latter is usually safe too).

4. Try a sandwich once or twice, just ask around, no need for a fancy place, these usually close by mid-afternoon. My favorite sandwich is the Hawaii, though I believe that is a purely subjective judgment, I do not think it is the best per se. The whole bakery culture there is quite interesting and often neglected by food people but it is important.

5. When you take a taxi out to the pyramids, there is excellent food along the way, in the middle of nowhere, have the driver stop and bring you somewhere. The pyramids are one of the best sights in this hemisphere, by the way, better than those in Egypt I think. There are also smaller pyramid sites on the way to the big pyramid site, worth visiting and also near some superb food.

6. Favorite fancy place there is Astrid and Gaston, not cheap but it won’t bankrupt you either.  Peruvian/Mexican fusion, nice to sit in too.

7. If you need a break from Mexican food, the Polish restaurants there are quite good, that would be my back up choice. Of Asian food the Japanese offerings might be the best. French and German can be quite good there, though not original.  Avoid “American.” Other Latin cuisines will in general be quite good there, including the steakhouses.

8. Go to Coyoacan (a suburb, sort of, but not far) and see the Frida Kahlo museum.  The food stalls (“comedores”) there are not only excellent, but they look the most sanitary and mainstream of just about any in Mexico. Even your aunt could be tempted to eat there. A good stop, try a whole bunch of things for $1.50 a piece, you could spend two hours there eating and not get bored and get to sample a lot of the main dishes.  Also a fun hangout.

9. When we flew into the airport, we immediately asked the taxi driver to bring us somewhere superb for a snack. Of course there was somewhere within five minutes, right nearby. Do this if you can open a line of communications.

9b. Walking is often the wrong way to find great food there, unless you are walking and asking. Walking and looking doesn’t work so well, because you are on the wrong streets if you are walking to just be walking around. Vehicles are the key, or asking and then walking to follow the advice, not to follow your walking instincts.

10. Chiles en Nogada is a seasonal dish, superb, I am not sure if they will still have it but ask around and get it if you can. It is delicious and a real treat, not to be forgotten.

11. Treat breakfast as a chance at some street food, don’t fill up on a traditional breakfast, least of all a touristy Mexican one. It will always be OK, but rarely interesting, even if it sounds somewhat authentic. Get a tlacoyo or something in the street. Any food represented by an Aztec word will be excellent, pretty much as a rule.

The non-food tips I will send separately. But the food is all about improvising, not about finding good restaurants. Most of the mid-tier restaurants are decent but for me ultimately a bit disappointing. Either go fancy or go street. Don’t trust any of the guidebook recommendations for mid-tier places, they will never be bad but mostly disappoint compared to the best stuff there.

Non-food

The Anthropology Museum is a must.

My personal favorite museum is Museo del Arte Popular, the popular art museum downtown, but I consider that an idiosyncratic preference.

Visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the murals there, and across the street House of Blue Tiles, get a juice there and see their murals too. Then walk from there down to the Zocalo on the main street, there is the number one walk in Mexico for a basic introduction to downtown. In fact that is the first thing I would do to get an overview of downtown and the older part of the city, even though that is not where you will end up hanging out.

The mural sites are in general excellent, I believe the best one is called Ildefonso.

I often find male clothes shopping there to be highly profitable, good mix of selection and prices. Polanco is the part of town you would go to for that, right near Pujol and also Astrid and Gaston, in fact.

Hotel Camino Real is a classic site, you can get a drink there at night with the funny colored lights. The movie Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot there in part, a great film. The Mexico City movie is Amores Perros, a knockout. Y Tu Mama Tambien is another, you probably know these already. I also like the old Mexican movies of Luis Bunuel, made while he lived there for a while.

The classic Mexico novel is Roberto Bolano, *The Savage Detectives*, a great read and one of the best novels of the latter part of the 20th century, the English translation is first-rate too, as good as the Spanish in my view.

I don’t like much of the music, but perhaps that is the point.  Control Machete, a Mexican rap group, works pretty good as soundtrack while you are being driven around the city.

The Alan Riding book, while now badly out of date, is still an excellent overview of the older Mexico, great for background, Distant Neighbors it is called.

Have a cabbie drive you around different neighborhoods, to see rich homes, poorer sections, particular buildings. Mexico City is first-rate for contemporary architecture although most of it is quite scattered, no single place for walking around it that I know of.

Art galleries there are good for browsing, often in or near Polanco, the wealthy part of town.

Insurgentes is a good avenue for cruising.

Avoid Zona Rosa altogether at all costs, bad stuff, lots of pickpockets, no redeeming virtues whatsoever, do not be tempted.”

Thoughts about Morocco

1. Fez is perhaps the place in the world with the clearest continuous connections to the time of late antiquity.  Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun worked there, and walking through the medina that is not hard to imagine — you can dine in a small restaurant in the home of Maimonides (recommended, most of all the vegetables).  Fez has the world’s oldest university, dating from the 859, and the world’s oldest continuously operating library, from 1359.

2. The country has been remarkably stable relative to the rest of the region, whether you take that to be the Middle East, MENA, or Africa.  But the nature of the associated stability lessons remains unclear, read more here.

3 Social capital is higher than it was during my last visit twenty years ago.  That said, every transaction is still a potential swindle waiting to happen.  And if any English-speaking Moroccan climbs into your train cabin, and claims his brother is the most wonderful guide in town and offers up his phone number…simply decline any further contact.  Especially if the guy has a scar on his face.

4. From the OEC:

The top exports of Morocco are Cars ($2.95B), Insulated Wire ($2.46B), Mixed Mineral or Chemical Fertilizers ($1.83B), Phosphoric Acid($1.14B) and Non-Knit Women’s Suits ($1B)…

It could be much worse, but the dangers of premature deindustrialization are real.  Their exports are too dependent on Spain and France, two countries with many other trading partners and also relatively slow growth rates.  Agriculture still accounts for 40-45% of employment.  Tourism continues to grow, but service culture in the country is not top-notch.  They export a lot of marijuana too.

5. The country has the (distant) potential to evolve into an Atlantic economy — check the map — and I don’t just mean the history of Rabat/Salé as a pirate state.  Nonetheless the actual trade of the nation paints it as a Mediterranean economy, and most Mediterranean economies have not done very well lately.

6. Moroccans do not seem very religious.  Counterintuitively, that may be why, when they are living in Europe, they are especially vulnerable to radicalization. They are not already “filled up with belief,” and experience anomie, which is then exploited by terror groups.  Arguably the same is true for Uighurs in China, by the way, who are recruited by the thousands for foreign ISIS crusades and the like.

7. More and more of the country’s gdp is concentrating in and near Casablanca, which is underrated as a visit.  The famous Grand mosque, as Yana pointed out, in fact resembles a cavernous mosque-clock tower-opera house-French railway station, with even some elements of a medieval cathedral.  Not all devout Muslims are happy with it.

8. The best bistillah is in Meknes, where it is moister and less sweet.  In Casablanca I recommend the seafood stalls in the Grand Marché, and the roast chicken joints, always with french fries.