Vox Populi’s “Peace Be Upon You” at MESS 2017

 

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Bullet holes around windows on a building in Sarajevo, likely from attempts by snipers to kill civilian occupants hiding inside.

October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”

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Sunset on the way to the theater.

It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.

Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.

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I didn’t take photos during the performance, but this post-performance shot gives an idea of the stage setup. The two actors, Diego and Mila, are front left in front of a silk screen.

Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.

But no one stands up.

 

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The Sarajevo War Theater stage, post-performance.

 

Some short scenes are of Mir Vama are available on YouTube here, while the original playbill for Mir Vama is available here in Bosnian, and here in English.

Want to see what Vox Populi are up to currently? You can follow them on Facebook here (in Bulgarian, but Google Translate works alright)

Travel from the U.S. might get a lot more expensive

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This is a break from our regular travel blog to let you know that if you’re here in the U.S. (or your country’s currency is tied in some way to the U.S. dollar), traveling might become a whole lot more expensive. This has to do with events at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days ago and current U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin basically not saying he wanted to see a stronger U.S. dollar. What this means is Mnuchin (and Trump’s administration) may back policies that lower the value of the U.S. dollar against other currencies (like the Euro), mostly so things made in the U.S. cost less in other countries and they will buy more. It’s a way of getting other countries to buy more things from the U.S.

Unfortunately, this kind of policy is also going to shaft you as an American traveling abroad. Because while in the big trade picture it means that U.S.-made stuff is cheaper for other countries to buy, it also means your U.S. dollar is going to be worth less when you convert it into Euros, or Swiss Francs, or Canadian Dollars, or Japanese Yen. So for example, if you trade 1 U.S. dollar now for Euros, you would get 0.81 Euros, or 81 Euro cents. When Stoytcho and I started our travels in Europe a couple of months ago, we got 85 Euro cents for 1 U.S. dollar. So now when we exchange currency, we get 4 cents less. That means when we go get a meal for 20 Euros, we’re paying $24.69 instead of $23.80. And this is a small example. Back in 2014, 1 U.S. dollar was worth only 75 Euro cents; if it goes that low again, that 20 Euro meal will be $26.67! That’s almost 3 more dollars (and more than 10%) on top of what we were paying.

Not every travel destination will have this problem, and we can break countries down into three categories: developing nations like Vietnam or Colombia, countries that tie their currency to the U.S. dollar like Ecuador and China, and developed nations like Canada and most Western Europe. In the case of developing nations, the cost of travel is likely to rise but will probably remain fairly affordable because it was so cheap to begin with, so if you’ve got that backpacking tour of Southeast Asia planned, you’re probably fine. Likewise for countries who tie their currency to the U.S. dollar*, their currency will just change with the U.S. dollar and prices should stay about the same–barring any kind of crazy trade war fallout. But the developed nations like Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Norway will be way more expensive to visit because they already had comparable prices for things to begin with AND your U.S. dollar will be worth less when converted into the local currency. That $500 USD you planned for 5 days in a hotel could become $550 a few months from now.

In summary, if you’re planning to travel from the U.S., brace for the chance that your money might be worth less. Be prepared and save up some extra.

And on the upside, if you’ve been dreaming of a U.S. vacation, visiting here won’t be as painfully expensive. You’re welcome!

* While I won’t distinguish how countries do this, there are a couple of ways – Ecuador and Panama simply use the U.S. dollar as their primary currency. China does much more complicated stuff to control the price of the yuan against the U.S. dollar, but the outcome is that the yuan generally follows the dollar in short to medium lengths of time.

Remembering World War II in Europe

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Tank treads embedded in concrete at a World War II memorial in Warsaw, Poland.

Here in Europe, the memory of World War II is living, breathing, complicated beast. It was less than 100 years ago, and people remember it through stories, monuments, and plaques scattered throughout the cities of the continent. And it’s not remembered in the episodic way we in the U.S. remember the war, which for most of us distills down to we got attacked at Pearl Harbor, we beat Hitler and the Nazis (the Russians would like to have a word with you)*, and we nuked Japan. No, here in Europe it’s remembered by which of your relatives died, how much of your city was leveled, what survived, and how you remember who and what didn’t.

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World War II displays in Moscow’s Museum of Great Patriotic War (a.k.a. World War II).

While it’s hard for me to estimate the exact number of World War II monuments, we’ve seen one in almost every place we’ve visited since we hit Russia. That includes Siberia, where there’s a Soviet monument in Ulan-Ude to the Buryats who fought in the war; to Latvia, where you can find plaques commemorating where the bombs fell and where Jewish refugees were sheltered scattered throughout the city streets; to Hungary, where towering monuments occupy city parks and the bank of the Danube River. There are places where we didn’t see World War II monuments, but in these cases we could have missed them or they could have been removed – the Soviets would have raised them in former Eastern Bloc states, and they might have fallen with the Communist governments.

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A plaque memorializing those killed by the Nazis (I think) in Prague, Czech Republic.

The language of the monuments and plaques also varies by location; it either memorializes the loss of lives of buildings in the war generally, or it memorializes specifically the war against the Nazis. In Estonia where an estimated 1 in 4 peopled died, pamphlets tell how Estonians first fought the Soviet Union, then the Nazis to retain their independence. In Latvia and Warsaw, many of the placards say “here refugees were sheltered,” or “here bombs fell.” And then there are the scattered memorials in Bialowieza, which read (in Russian and Polish), “Here the Nazis committed terrible atrocities.”

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A plaque in the sidewalk in Riga, Latvia, commemorating a hiding place for Jews.

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Memorial to a massacre in the forest, near Bialowieza National Park.

But behind the monuments and the public face of remembrance, there’s a more complicated cultural and personal remembrance that doesn’t conform to the public memorialization. In Austria, this manifests as darkly self-critical humor scattered through the sightseeing pamphlets at hostels: “This location memorializes the terrible acts we committed. Oops, we meant the Nazis, we Austrians were just victims who were invaded.” With the fall of communism in Poland, there are whispers now that some of the murders in the forests of Bialowieza were committed by Soviet soldiers and blamed on the Nazis as a cover-up.

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Two visitors stop in front of the “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary.

But this conflict of public and private remembrance is most evident in Budapest, where that recently-built “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” has sparked protests that the Hungarian government is ‘washing over history’ for political expedience*. An independent, home-made monument has sprouted up in front of the official memorial with personal memorabilia from victims killed by the Arrow Cross: photos, letters, ID cards, and books. It’s a reminder visitors that like the Austrians, many in Hungary welcomed the Nazis, and many murders and atrocities were committed by Hungarian hands.

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Memorabilia and decorations on the homemade protest monument in Budapest, Hungary. The monument asserts that Hungary’s “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” whitewashes history by failing to acknolwedge that many native Hungarians committed atrocities as part of the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross Party.

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Two tourists look at both the homemade monument and the “Monument to the Victims of the German Invasion” in Budapest, Hungary.

Only a mile away from Budapest’s new monument, another World War II memorial sits on the bank of the Danube. Dozens of pairs of shoes, cast in bronze, are rooted into the concrete to memorialize those who were shot at the riverbank in 1944 and 1945. With the war drawing to a close and resources scarce, victims were told to remove their shoes before they were shot and their bodies tumbled into the river below. There are rumpled boots and loafers. There are fine, high-heeled pumps. There are children’s shoes.

Plaques embedded in the ground at each end state: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45.”

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A child-sized pair of bronze shoes stand amid flowers at the memorial to the victims shot on its banks in World War II.

Side notes:

* Russia took the most World War II casualties of any country by number of deaths, and they were actually the ones to take Berlin on the ground at war’s end.

**The Hungarian government of the last decade has been controlled most by Fidesz, a nationalist right-leaning party that disagrees with Germany’s policy of allowing increased immigration. The memorial cleverly furthers both of its goals by (1) de-associating guilt from itself by failing to mention the atrocities linked to the also nationalist, right-wing party of the Arrow Cross and (2) associating the crimes committed with Germany, not specifically the Nazis, which stirs up subconscious anti-German sentiment.

Grand Strategy in Moscow

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Traffic outside of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski

We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?

The connection

Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.

The art gallery

We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.

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A bronze statue in the museum

After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.

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Two visitors read the plaque in front of a painting at the gallery.

Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”

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This painting depicts serf wedding arrangements being made between families.

Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.

The Grand Strategy

Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.

We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.

Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.

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For some photographic context, here’s the building we’re staying in tonight.

Stories from the Trans-Siberian, Part 1

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Our traincar’s attendant watches people disembark.

Cabin-mates

Today we bid farewell to Ulan-Ude and board the trans-Siberian railway westward to Krasnoyarsk. Our trip will last 26 hours, and we’ll be sharing our journey with two others in our cabin in kupe. Stoytcho is apprehensive about this, but it’s already a compromise; if I was choosing alone, I would’ve gone with plazcart, which consists of just rows of bunks with curtains for privacy. But as the train arrives and we watch the people piling into the plazcart cars en masse, I’m glad we went with kupe.

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The hallway of kupe.

We board after an attendant scrutinizes our passports, and we find our cabin, a tiny 7’ x 4’ x 7’ room that hosts a table and four bunk beds. There are two guys already in there, one older and one younger, and they fall silent as we walk in. Neither one is smiling. After we drop our stuff off on our bunks, we step outside of the cabin and Stoytcho gives me ‘the look’. “They don’t look friendly,” he sighs.

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Stoytcho stands in our 4-berth cabin.

Lay of the Land

Siberia is endless. Our traincar glides through the landscape, and fields of flowers, open plains, and dense forests fill our window. I feel that if I could get out of our tiny room and run, I could run forever in any direction.

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A road winds through the Siberian landscape.

Occasionally we pass a house or small village huddled near the railway, usually old wooden structures with meticulously-painted accents and a vegetable patch nearby. Wires seem to extend from beside the tracks out to these houses—the electrical wiring running parallel to the railway appears to be their source of electricity. I wonder if it’s the only source of electricity out here, so far away from a major city. I wonder what the people do when it goes down.

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A lone house peeks between freight railcars.

In the late afternoon on the first day, I watch the landscape bathed in golden light move past our window. A stand of pines gives way to a sparse birch standing in a field of tall, brilliant purple flowers. We’ve seen these flowers before, on the shores of Lake Baikal. The family who hosted us our first night there explained that the leaves could be made into to tea, giving it the name ‘Ivan-chai.’ “Иванчаи,” I say out loud, pointing at them. The young guy in our cabin replies with a grin, “да.”

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Birch trees stand in a field of blooming Ivan-chai.

This Is Chai

There isn’t much to do on the train besides sit and watch the scenery go by. You can read, although the swaying of the traincar can give you mild motion sickness. You could write, but the jolts can send your pen scratching across the page. And you could use some electronic device of your choice, but the only outlets available for charging are found in the aisle outside your cabin. Instead, you watch the scenery go by and you have чаи (tea).

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Snapshot of Siberia: pine forest (right) gives way to birch trees, then bog (left).

Every Russian traincar is equipped with a samovar, a hot water dispenser. The car’s attendant lends you mugs for free, which consist of a simple glass held in a gorgeously ornate tea glass holder (подстаканник). Add your own teabag and presto, you’ve got hot tea to sip as you watch the scenery slip by. Not knowing about this, we did not bring our own tea, but the older guy in our cabin pushes his boxes of teabags and sugar to us with gusto. “Please, help yourself,” he says warmly. We thank him and dip teabags into our cups, watching the dark color of tea ripple out into the hot water.

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The traincar samovar.

The young man returns from the restroom and sits down next to the older man, on the bunk across from us. “чаи?” he asks. “да,” we reply cheerfully, pointing to the mugs. He glances at the older man and smiles. “нет,” he shakes his head, and rifles through his stuff. Seconds later, he produces bountiful containers of Russian salad, boiled potatoes, hardboiled eggs, lukanka, bread, and cheese. He lays them out on the table, beside our mugs of tea. In the meantime, the old man disappears and returns with two more mugs of hot water. The four of us sit together at our table as Siberia passes by our window, “This,” the young man grins with a flourish, “This is чаи.”

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A podstakannik with tea and some snacks from our trip.

Politics

Our cabin mates are Nikolaj, a younger man on his way to visit his sister in Novosibirsk, and Ivan, an older man homebound after a six-month work stint on electrical lines out in Siberia. I introduced myself as “Natasha” and Stoytcho introduced himself with his name. Ironically, it’s a funny name even here, although Nikolaj and Ivan recognize it as Slavic. Stoytcho explains that he was born in Bulgaria, but works in the U.S. now. The guys are evidently pleased that they’ve got a Slavic brother in Stoytcho, even if Russian and Bulgarian have only about 50% equivalence. Both groups struggle to find synonyms and simple words that might map complicated thoughts and feelings.

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A building stands alone in the Siberian landscape. Some buildings standing near the rails appear to be old factories, perhaps abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj asks us if Americans hate Russians, followed by what we understand as, “If I travel there, will I be welcome?” We reply with “Americans don’t hate Russian people, it is the governments that don’t like each other. Big countries want to be the best. People are people, the rest is politics.” Both Nikolaj and Ivan nod, “It’s the same here. The government says that America hates us, makes trouble, sanctions. But the Cold War is over already. America won,” Nikolaj sighs with a laugh. “You should come visit us in America!” I offer helpfully. “Yeah, I want to try to visit,” he replies, smiling. Given U.S. visa costs and requirements, we both this is nearly impossible.

View part 2 here.

Ulan-Ude’s “Moscow Night”

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A billboard just outside of Turka along the shores of Lake Baikal.

All over Ulan-Ude there are billboards with this guy’s face in the foreground, beside an open road with green hills and the rising sun. The billboards rise up from parking lots and along highways. We even encountered him out in the woods of Lake Baikal, a lone billboard standing above the pines beside the road. “Alexey Tsydenov”, the billboards proclaim proudly, followed by two words in Russian that we cannot understand, but translate in Google to “The time of change”. When we returned to Ulan-Ude after our hike, we asked our favorite hostel staff about it. “Oh, our new governor,” she tells us. “You had an election recently?” I ask in return. “No,” she laughs, “but we know he will be governor because last month Putin came to meet with him. And they have a rally for him tomorrow night, sort of. You should go.”

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Setting up the stage for the big night.

The rally our host spoke of turned out to be “Moscow Night in Buryatia”, billed as a summer music festival with live bands, contests, and sing-alongs. We watched crews assemble a huge stage in the central square and hang up banners displaying Buryatia’s flag in the afternoon, and hung around to watch people gather for the rally. Though I think of elections with a known outcome as symbolic of a forged democracy, our host last night saw it differently. “No, it’s not fake. If the election was fake and the government could just choose someone as governor, they wouldn’t have this rally,” she scoffs, “Why waste the money to have this show if they could just rig the election?” That’s a hefty but true dose of Russian cynicism.

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People milling around, waiting for the show to begin.

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Two little babushkis who were sitting in front of us.

As the sun sank lower, the crowd in the square swelled to over a thousand people, all chatting and jostling and waiting with excitement. This event seems like a cultural event, a gift from the capital that lies 2,700 miles to the west. The lights of the stage suddenly flashed on and a man with a microphone walked out. It was time for the show to begin.

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The opening salvo, about how Buryatia needs Moscow and vice versa.

For anyone who has studied influence, this show was a master-class demonstration of it, meant to build nationalism among the Buryati people. First came the speech, in which the man onstage enumerated the ways that Moscow needs Buryatia and Buryatia needs Moscow, with a lot more emphasis on the latter. After fifteen minutes, we had heard “Buryatia” about ten times. We had heard “Moscow” more than thirty. Following this was the awards ceremony, in which children of Buryatia who had written the best essays about Moscow and Russia were brought onstage, given a gift, and invited to Moscow with all expenses paid.

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More speechmaking.

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Announcing the winners of the essay contest.

Third came Alexey Tsydenov, the soon-to-be-governor of Buryatia, with a speech for his people about what he hoped to do. And last but not least came the Buryat Choir from Moscow, singing impassioned renditions of popular songs from the last fifty years, as footage of Russian soldiers battling and being heroes played in the background. Soon everyone was singing along with them. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, they dragged Alexey onstage with a microphone and got him singing as well. He didn’t look entirely comfortable up there, but he put on a brave face and sang anyway.

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The performance and sing-along, with the backdrop of soldiers on the battlefield.

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Audience members, singing along.

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Then they got Alexei himself up there to sing with them.

Alexey escaped the stage again shortly afterward, but the show continued for hours, through more fan favorite songs for sing-along, jokes, and laughter. We couldn’t last to the end and found ourselves heading back to the hostel through crowds of people still coming to see the show. In retrospect, this event didn’t seem all that different from the rallies of America, of musicians headlining political rallies, of cheering crowds and overt nationalism. It’s just that in our case, we’ve got two choices, and no one is ever totally certain of the election’s outcome until it occurs.

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Eventgoers crowded underneath the statue of Lenin’s head.

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Women taking photos and video.

Maybe the rally will help Alexey win the election he’s already been preordained to win, but from talking with our host he doesn’t need the help. He’s a Buryatia-born man who’s worked in Moscow for the better part of a decade, so Moscow wants him because he’s vetted and won’t rock the boat. But the people of Buryatia also find this appealing–his story narrative is one of the prodigal son returning home to give his people a better life. “The old governor is kind of useless now, he hasn’t done much in years,” our host tells us, “Tsydenov knows the politicians in Moscow. He can work with them and get more for us from the capital.” So in that sense, Moscow’s choice for the next governor may also be Buryatia’s preference.

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Another billboard of Alexei, this time in Ulan-Ude. I wonder how he feels about all of this.

Travel in the Time of Trump: How to Build Two Thousand Years of Hate

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A Google Maps guide demarcating the line of the Great Wall across China. The white far above it is the Chinese-Mongolian border. Source here.

When you travel through hostels so often, you go through the same conversation with different people over and over. The questions follow an unwritten script, with little variation: Where did you come from? Where are you going? What have you seen? Where are you from? You ask and answer these same questions every day, getting to know the flow of people through your room, trying to understand who they are and how they see the world.

Last night’s companions were a trio of Mongolian women here on holiday and one stayed in last night, where we played through the unwritten script with her, asking and answering. She was here with her small governmental department on vacation; the whole group decided to head up here to Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikal for the Mongolian national holiday of Naadam. She asked about our travels and we told her about the world trip, although she was sad to hear we had passed over Mongolia. I explained it was because of flight prices (it was actually cheaper to fly to Ulan-Ude than Ulan Bator), but that Mongolia is on the list of dream destinations. We spent the next hour talking about Mongolia, the woman telling us about the vast open plains, the vivid nature, the nomadic people, and the delicious food.

At some point the question of my identity came up, and I explained that my father is Chinese and I am half Chinese. The woman was a bit taken aback, but she exclaimed, “Yes, I can see it. You don’t look quite European! You would fit in here with the Buriyati or even in Mongolia.” I laughed and told her, “I know. I look like a local girl almost everywhere.”

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A bronze statue in Ulan-Ude representing the nomadic Buryati tribes. The Qin Dynasty built the Great Wall ostensibly to keep similar Mongolian tribes from invading China.

In the morning, the Mongolian women rushed to pack and leave the hostel for Baikal. As she was leaving, the woman we talked to last night bade us farewell and excitedly hoped we would come to Mongolia one day. Her eyes twinkled and she had a warm open smile. “But please…” she exclaimed, “maybe don’t say anything about being part Chinese! Because in Mongolia, we don’t like the Chinese people. When people insult each other, we say that a person is a son of Chinese.”

Her imminent departure made her speed rushed, but also deeply honest. “I have nothing against you. But I want you to be safe. And you see how the Chinese treated us. They built a giant wall at our border to keep us out. And now where is the wall? Very far in Chinese territory, no? Because they have taken so much from us, we hate them.” She paused, but was still smiling. It seems the contempt for Chinese people did not translate to contempt for Chinese (or half-Chinese) persons like me.

Then she was gone and I was left to parse the feelings of the interaction. My enthusiasm for visiting Mongolia wasn’t dampened, but her words about the Great Wall rattled around in my head for a while. For most people, the Great Wall is an archaeological and architectural marvel, amazing if only for length alone. To find out that it was a symbol of hate for Mongolians was surprising, although in retrospect not all that weird. If your neighbor builds a big, unfriendly wall bristling with weapons pointed at you, you certainly aren’t going to view it dispassionately; you’re going to think they’re a dick and you’re going to hate that neighbor. So the wall, maybe at first borne out of mutual hatred, becomes a symbol of that hatred.

The China-Mongolia-Great Wall story might be a well-timed allegory for us in the United States. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he argues will solve problems for the U.S., such as immigration and violent crime. But let’s set that aside and remember that this point in time is only a moment in Mexico-U.S. relations. If we do build a wall, even if it is successful, what is the cost of that success? Like the cross in Christianity or the American Flag, a wall would become a symbol of our country and a message to our neighbors. It might be a long-lasting, dark stain on our relationships. So no, I can’t tell you that the wall wouldn’t solve some of the immigration problems. But I think that it would be good to remember that the last huge wall built created two thousand years of hate.

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The bronze statue’s twin, a Slavic-looking man on a horse that represents the European settlers in Buryatia, looks out to the horizon.

Tokyo ->Shanghai->Beijing->Ulan Ude

Today we’ll be doing a marathon of traveling, from Tokyo to Shanghai and then Beijing, with an overnight layover and a flight the next morning to Ulan-Ude in Siberia, Russia. It’s going to be a rough trip. But on the bright side, this flight itinerary wouldn’t even be possible fifty years ago.

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We wait for our next flight at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport.

We board a China Eastern Airlines plane at Narita Airport and make our first stop in Shanghai. Technically, we’re still on the same ‘flight’ on to Beijing, but we’re all forced off the plane to go through customs because we’re coming from another country. The airline slaps bright blue stickers on us as we leave. The stickers have a string of numbers and letters codifying our flight written on them, followed by “Beijing” in both Chinese and English. I turn around and whisper to Stoytcho: “This is so we don’t get lost.” We weave through long lines at immigrations, then pick up our luggage and head to a customs that fifty years ago would not have been, with China just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution.

After customs and immigration, we’re shepherded to our next gate and onto our flight by way of buses around the airport and across the tarmac. They’re crowded affairs, crammed Chinese and foreigners of all ages. A few are older Chinese ladies, who fifty years ago probably never guessed they would board a plane.

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Looking out the window of our plane at the airport.

One flight later we’re in Beijing for our overnight stay, where we try to find food and a place to sleep for the night. After deeming the airport hotel too expensive, we hunt around for a quiet stretch to lie down. We want to get as much sleep as we can to be prepared for tomorrow’s flight to Ulan-Ude. We’re not sure how Russia is going to be, so we want to be awake and have our wits about us. But it can’t be that bad. Fifty years ago, with Leonid Brezhnev leading the Soviet Union, we almost certainly wouldn’t be welcome.

We bed down on a line of chairs with no armrests, curling up and preparing for sleep. In the row of chairs on the other side, two guys are doing the same. One offers us a cookie and we whittle the time away with talk. The two are brothers from Iran, doing something with oil technology. They’re returning home. Because it’s my dream to one day visit Iran, I ask what the country is like and where we should go. They tell me about the ancient cities and rugged mountains and thick jungle. They ask about the United States, and what it’s like there, and I tell them about the gleaming cities and rugged mountain and towering redwood forests. We swap emails. “You should come visit us!” one of the guys tells us, and I shrug and reply, “Maybe one day. It’s almost impossible for us to visit Iran.” Without thinking I add “You should come visit us, though!” The guys laugh, “It’s impossible for to visit the U.S.” Oh right, of course.

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Our bed for the night at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, where travelers from around the world can meet and converse.

Today, I can’t visit the country of these two guys that I’m conversing with at an airport. But fifty years ago, the Shah ruled Iran and U.S. citizens could visit Iran mostly unfettered. Fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and both Russia and China were off-limits. Fifty years ago, no one had ever landed on the moon. Now, we’re suddenly in possession of unimaginable technologies and we’re bedding down at an airport in China and tomorrow we fly to Russia. And as I stare down at their email address written on my phone, I think about how we now send emails from devices containing more computing power than even the most powerful computers fifty years ago. Who knows what changes another fifty years will bring?

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An air traffic employee on the tarmac at Pudong Airport, which didn’t exist fifty years ago.

Talking politics when you don’t speak the language

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A view of the presidential palace in Bogor Gardens.

Indonesia is a diverse, pluralistic nation with over a hundred different ethnic groups. It’s also got politics, so political talk is inevitable: currently, the city of Jakarta is in turmoil because the former Chinese governor Ahok was convicted of blasphemy, while the man who accused him and drove the campaign for his blasphemy trial, the Muslim cleric Anis, is taking control as governor. Any takers for a serialized TV show on this stuff?

We’ve had a few chats on Trump and the state of the states while here, mostly in English. And they people who we’re talking with range from sympathy to total surprise when it comes to our reaction regarding Trump. A friend who directs policy at a nonprofit shook her head with us at the insanity already unfolding in the states – things like the immigration travel ban and the proposed wall with Mexico. Then there was the uniformed military officer in Bogor Garden who wanted a selfie with us. He asked what we thought about Trump after the photo, and was genuinely perplexed when I put my face in my hands and replied, “Terrible. Embarrassing. Bad.” Then again, Indonesia (and much of Asia) has a history of leaders that the Western world condemned for being dictators and strongmen. Trump’s tactics are likely to appeal to them.

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An Indonesian war monument and poorly-placed deer amusement park sign near Bogor gardens, where we had one of our Trump conversations.

But for our last night in Jakarta, we got the same question about Trump from locals in Glodok who DEFINITELY didn’t speak English. They were the guys who made our dinner at their nasi goreng cart. They wanted to know the usual at first, why we came to Indonesia and whether we liked it and where we were from. After using my broken Indonesian to convey we were from the U.S., the two exchanged glances and one of them asked, “Trump?”

Ohhh boy, where to start. I started with the “Bad for the U.S., bad leader,” description, but the guys didn’t understand that. After trying to explain for a few minutes, I gave up. Then the guy asked again, “Trump?” but this time he accompanied it with a thumbs up/thumbs down motion. BRILLIANT! I made a dramatic, emphatic thumbs down motion, which set the two guys off in laughter and excited talking.

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The two nasi-goreng chefs who taught us to talk politics without using words.

Now it’s my turn: I ask “Ahok?” and give the same thumbs up/thumbs down motion. I’m curious to know what they think of their former governor, now convicted of blasphemy. I would guess since we’re in Glodok (an enclave of the Chinese minority), they would like him. I’m totally surprised when they give the thumbs down, and make a motion like calling to the sky: blasphemy. He blasphemed Allah. This sign language politics communication is working pretty well.

I ask one more question of our two nasi goreng chefs: “Jokowi?” This is Indonesia’s current president. He’s aligned with Ahok, and one of concerns of the Western world and among the Indonesians is that this Ahok-Anis affair bodes poorly for Jokowi in the next election. They fear that Indonesia will become increasingly pro-Muslim and anti-every other minority in Indonesia, electing people with more hardline views. But I’m surprised again by our two chefs; they both enthusiastically give a thumbs up for Jokowi! His popularity remains unscathed, at least with these two locals.

So the next time you’re in a country and can’t speak the language, you can still talk politics (or anything!) in the simplest possible terms. Just say the word and give a thumbs up/thumbs down. It’s not going to get you a detailed political analysis, but it gets you a feeling, and you might be surprised at how much you can communicate without words.

Travel in the Time of Trump: Trump’s New Zealand fans

Despite our first run-in with Trump’s visage in Auckland, Trump does have fans here in New Zealand. Yes, New Zealand—that nature-loving, outdoorsy, free-healthcare fairly-socialist country in Oceania. I was confused at first, too.

Who are these people, and why do they support Trump? Like in the U.S., the people that support Trump seemed to be predominantly rural or small-town. They might have had ties to the U.S.  And again like in the U.S., they were very, very showy of their support.

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A pro-Trump sign under the U.S. flag in rural New Zealand

Encounter 1: The “Make America Great Again” hat

Somewhere along the Coromandel coast, neither here nor there, we stopped through a small town for lunch and groceries. On grocery duty, I collected our groceries and stood in line at the checkout. A guy no older than 25 got in line behind me. He was wearing the iconic red hat with white lettering : “Make America Great Again”. I didn’t think it was possible for Trump to have supporters here in New Zealand, so I asked him, “You’re wearing hat ironically, right?” “Not at all,” he replied with a straight face. I was floored.

“Why?” was my first question. He responded with the usual, that the system and Hillary Clinton are corrupt and screwing over America and Trump would fix things, especially immigration. Then he mentioned something about Obamacare, and I had to stop him. “You realize that New Zealand has universal healthcare, right?” He looked uneasy and shrugged, “Yeah, it…works for New Zealand, I guess.”

At this point, I noticed he didn’t have a New Zealand accent and asked where he came from. He told me he had moved to New Zealand with his parents from the U.S., but he had travelled around to a few other countries. We swapped travel stories. I wanted to keep talking with him, mostly because I was confused. This was my first face-to-face conversation with an ardent Trump supporter and I wanted to know: who are you? How do you think?

Somehow, we got back to the topic of immigration and the guy got particularly excited. He told me Trump would finally clean up America and throw out all of the illegal immigrants. America would be safer. My first instinct was to ask him what planet he lived on, because crime was already on the decline in most cities (linkout) and I grew up in a community of many illegal immigrants. I walked the streets alone as a kid. I was safe. But statistics don’t change minds, and anecdotes are met with “that’s just your experience. You were lucky.”

So instead I drew on my negotiation and consulting experiences. I wondered if I could get him to see through the eyes of an illegal immigrant. “Why do you think these people come to America?” I asked. The guy shrugged, “For a better life, for work.” I figured that was a good start and pressed on, “Okay, and so you really think a wall is going to stop them?  You might deport some, but more will come. And there’s already a wall, and it hasn’t stopped them.” He had a response, and I responded back with something. We came to the conclusion that they came because Mexico couldn’t offer the same standard of living, and improving the Mexican economy was the best way to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants.

From here the conversation took a wildly speculative turn. The guy ended up being a fan of marijuana legalization, so we imagined a world in which the Mexican economy was powered by a marijuana equivalent of the vineyards and wineries, with people traveling from around the world for tours. I have no idea if that’s even possible, but it seemed like a better endpoint than “kick all of the illegal immigrants out and it’s not my problem.” I finished by asking him, “And if these people came legally from Mexico, it would be fine?” “Yeah, totally,” he replied.

Encounter 2: A sign in the hills 

It was easy to write off the first experience as an outlier, the result of a guy who moved to New Zealand but who in his heart was still American. But driving through the center of the North Island on the last day, among the rolling green hills at sunset, we came across the sign (above). We screeched to a halt and got out, staring. Posted beneath the American flag, the sign declared, “PRES. TRUMP. GO THE DONALD; MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

There was nothing else for miles, save a few fences and a fluttering New Zealand flag. Stoytcho and I looked around for clues to who the owners of the Trump sign were, but to no avail. The only information we could find was a sign at the next turnoff that read “BURR FAMILY DAIRY FARM. AUTHORIZED ENTRY ONLY.” Stoytcho pointed out that we couldn’t be sure it was their sign. But from the location, flag, and all-caps signs, it was clear that someone wanted their support of Trump to ring loud and proud in the New Zealand countryside.

UPDATE: These signs DO belong to the Burr Family Dairy Farm. Looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed them, and it gets worse; the adjacent sign with their name on it reads in tiny font “If you […] are a left wing tosser, DO NOT ENTER.” So that settles any ambiguity on their political point-of-view.