June 25, 2009

The Comedy of International Branding

I was going to try to fit these amazing snipnets of international packaging into the sidebars, but because of their exceptional fabulousness, they really deserve their own post.
For Instance:

Kyrgyzstan competes with China in crimes of copyright infringement, but on a much, much smaller scale. Where China will blatantly rip off and produce millions of an existing product, Kyrgyzstan will take popular brands, advertisements, logos or celebrity faces photocopied from magazines and paste them onto singular, local shop signs or onto items sold in small quantities in the markets. Here in Osh, they took the iconic Mr. Clean and creatively turned him into... Mr. Proper!

But I think it might be wise to forgo the lawsuits against the copying Kyrgyz because when left to their own advertising imagination they come up with things like this: a laundry detergent called, well....Barf.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Imms

This is what a typical grocery shop looks like in Central Asia, whereby the Vodka section takes up more than half the store. Here, the bargain basement Vodka bin is selling bottles for 35 som, approximately $1.25.
The brands of vodka can get pretty interesting as well. It took us a minute to figure out if this was a drunk and possessed looking Barbie want-to-be on the top of this bottle, but soon we realized it was none other than Miss Yulia Tymoshenko, the un-mistakenly braided, orange party revolutionary and prime minister-ess of Ukraine.
Photos courtesy of the lovely Rachel Imms.

In the same shop, we found Liv Tyler endorsing a local Kyrgyz, cardboard boxed wine, making me realize just how much money celebrities can pull in from international advertising. While next to her, appealing to all those closet Muslim drinkers, we have a women in Hijab trying to sell this fine merlot.

Why only have Red Bull when you can also have Red Camel?
The intrepid Mr. Justin Chelvam took this photo and I am not sure where since I ripped it off his Facebook page for all to see.

The Uyghur's of Northwestern China couldn't afford any celebrity endorsements and ddin't want the trouble of potential copyright infringement lawsuits, so they created a cola that appealed directly to their customer base....Cola Uyghur. I think you are allowed to drink it even if you are not Uyghur...I think.

A market in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan has successfully moved through the mercury and dolphin issues of tuna by offering it's customers cow and horse meat in a can....Mr. Ed never tasted so goooood!

June 24, 2009

Khiva, Uzbekistan

By the time I had reached Khiva, after a seven hour drive through the Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan, two months of travel through Central Asia and fourteen months of wandering the globe, I was officially tired. Taking a photograph seemed as big an effort as running a marathon and exploring an ancient town loaded with great architecture and history felt like having to sit still in eighth grade math class five minutes before the summer holiday bell rang. But meeting new people never lost its luster.
I had arrived into both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in a blaze of Vodka fueled testosterone and had become accustomed to high levels of corruption. I was dragging my feet wearily in the heat through the streets of the old city of Khiva when I stopped for water and met Yerqinay, a sweet twenty year old Uzbek girl working at her family’s shop. Her spirit was so pure and positive that it seemed to erase all the thuggery I had encountered over the past months.
Sitting in the waning light of the sun amongst buildings that had seen centuries of progress along with brutal war, chatting with Yerqinay and her friend, my faith in the simple, honest beauty of life had been restored.

June 11, 2009

What if Porcelain became the New Gold?

With all the shiny, yellow smiles flashing around Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan I started to wonder if it was actually possible to affect the global price of gold if the populations of Central Asia suddenly jumped on the porcelain party train and launched a mining expedition in their mouths.
I posed this question to my superstar gold and silver analyst brother, but he has been so busy writing eloquent essay's on more intellectual speculations of the commodity for a blogging contest, that I am still waiting for the answer to this one. When he formulates his hypothesis I will be sure to post it here.
Until then, get answers to more relevant questions about gold on the website soyouthinkyoucanrant.com. And don't forget, it's a contest, so if you like and agree with John's spot on predictions then place your vote for him!

June 10, 2009

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Arriving in Samarkand, a once bustling trading post on the ancient Silk Road, I was hoping to find the romance of a dusty and chaotic buy, sell and barter atmosphere that would make me feel like I had shaved a few thousand years off 2009, but, unfortunately for me, the city has since developed beyond the parameters of my fantasy.
The Registan, which is Samarkand’s main draw and an impressive architectural contender for the entire Central Asian region, is a dizzying display of tiles, tiles and more tiles. There are tiles on just about every surface, in a myriad of colors and patterns, and if you stare at them collectively, it’s possible to actually experience a kind of tile vertigo, leading me to think that this was perhaps the reason that the regions Sufi whirling dervishes (a kind of rotating Islamic monk) starting spinning in circles…so they could actually see things straight. The three massive structures used to be education institutions and housing for the cities Muslims, but today they function as one of the country’s most notable and heavily restored attractions.
With all of the sites having undergone full renovations by the Russians, almost to the point of an antiseptic precision, the only way I was able to invoke a historical feeling was by squinting my eyes in front of the many incredible photographs in the museum that were taken during the start of the 20th century and depict the trading markets of old, prayer time inside the mosques and what the structures looked like before they were rebuilt and scrubbed clean.
After two days, with all the squinting, tile vertigo and having to stand in a long line for a shwarma sandwich in the rain it was time to pack up my camel (backpack) and start the trek (by train) to the next destination on ye’ old Silk Road.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

I was anxious to leave the Wild West of Kyrgyzstan behind, with its familiar stories of police shakedowns, armed robberies and daylight street beatings. But as I sat in the airport waiting for my plane, I was unwittingly in the process of getting myself abducted by a Belorussian diplomat eager to practice his English. Before we even landed in Uzbekistan, I already had two full days of a social agenda organized.
Vova really was practicing his English and, at times, our conversation would hit a wall, but we were soon able to communicate better through his English teacher, a Russian woman from Tashkent who became our guide in and out of the museums of the city. Tatiana’s language skills were fluent and her historical perspective quite interesting; Stalin had labeled her Grandfather an ‘enemy of the state’ and he was subsequently dragged off to the Gulags while the rest of the family was ‘relocated’ to Tashkent. We spent many enjoyable hours, walking the wide, tree-lined streets and eating pizza while discussing past and present politics of the region.
The rest of the time was spent on discussing my “single” status, which after hearing my age, it seemed that Vova had labeled me an ‘enemy of mankind’ and was ready to have me dragged off to the alter. “Why wasn’t I married?” he demanded. Whose fault was this? My fault or the fault of men?, Was I too good for men?, Did I even like men? Didn’t I know that life was near unbearable without men? And how could I possibly get from place to place or make important decisions without……a man???? (Although, I did happen to feign logistic naivety on arrival at the Tashkent airport so I could get a chauffeured ride to my guesthouse in the official Belorussian diplomat car)
Men the world over seem to echo the same sentiment upon learning that I am a happily, unmarried 34 year old woman. My reality bears down on them like the threat of an approaching storm: if more and more women start walking down this path, they think to themselves, then who will be left to care for us? Will our selection pool shrink? Will I have to cook and clean for myself? Will I have to endure long stretches of sexless nights and dirty laundry? The thought of this becomes too uncomfortable and I am always highly encouraged to find a husband as soon as possible, so that I might end this blatant assault on the male gender and restore order to the ways “things should be”.
But what about my selection pool?
When I landed at the guesthouse in Tashkent, I was greeted by a group of middle-aged local men, one of them the owner, who, like proper Slavic Muslims, were downing Vodka shots as if they were the first drops of water after days in a hot, dry desert. After announcing my name and my country, one of them took the intellectual route and responded with a slurred, “Yew are bweutifool gerl..i lahuv yoos..you lyike me? (Hiccup)” Another was trying to get me to dance with him, enticing me, he thought, by lifting his shirt and exposing his bulging, hairy stomach. And the other one was working through a twelve year old translator to see if, after a ten minute introduction, I wanted to spend the night with him.
With this fine display of gender representation, it really is a wonder how I haven’t found a husband.

Escape from Kygyzstan

The morning I was to cross from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan, a suicide bomber had detonated himself near the border and killed a police officer. In short, the border was closed for business. It was difficult to get accurate reports of exactly what happened, but one thing was for sure, my visa was to expire in two days and I needed to leave Kyrgyzstan, one way or another. A traveler who had arrived at the guesthouse after barely making it through the border immediately following the event gave me the name and number of an Egyptian taxi driver who she said might be able to help. I called him. Yes, the border was officially closed, but for the bargain basement price of $12 bucks, Aziz said he could get me through to the Uzbek side. “How?” I asked. There were some fuzzy responses to that. “Would it be legal?” Another fuzzy response.
Faced with the option of getting smuggled over the border with tanks and bombers waiting on the other side, or booking myself a flight and passing over the chaos at 35,000 feet, I reluctantly chose the latter. I had made an exciting border run into Kyrgyzstan and here was my chance to make an exciting border smuggle out, but as I began to face the fact that I was neither a journalist nor a guerilla fighter and was actually just a silly little tourist with family and friends back home who claim to care for me, it really didn’t make much sense to risk things for a potentially fabulous story to tell later. So I promptly booked myself a ticket on Kyrgyzstan Airways with a connection on Uzbekistan Airways.
Kyrgyzstan Airways? Uzbekistan Airways? With these options I really didn’t know which was more dangerous: getting smuggled into an Uzbek insurgent hotbed by an Egyptian taxi driver or traveling across the country on a local air carrier.

She’s come a long way, baby.

For many years before, and especially right after my Mother passed away, I was petrified of flying. It was a fear that on some occasions kept me grounded, firmly rooted in my “safety zone”, while at other times, when I had to fly, I became that nervous, shifty, anxious person you didn’t want to be seated next to. It seemed to be a fear of having no ground immediately beneath me: a feeling I experienced when I was in a plane and a feeling I had walking through daily life without my Mother.
Booking myself a one-way ticket to Cairo over one year ago was my first protest against this fear (and many others). Until then I had let it run unhindered upon my psyche; I remained in reactionary mode instead of proactively dismantling this negative of which, ultimately, I had full control. There are many fears in which we have no control: the fear of war, the fear of not enough food, the consequential fears after a brutal or painful event in our life. But this was a fear I had created out of smelly, recycled plane air and it was possible, with a conscious shift in attitude, a submission of control and, perhaps an in-flight glass of wine, to choose to overcome it. Yes, to simply choose differently. I had never considered my happiness or my reactions to things to be a choice, but as I boarded Kyrgyzstan Airways Flight 92, a small seat relic from 1940 which had it’s maintenance budget cut after WWII, I realized how much I was starting to live by this philosophy.
As the scent of burnt wires filled the antiquated, non-ventilated interior and the cabin temperature suspiciously became aligned with the air outside, I calmly laid back in my broken chair, opened my book and chose to thoroughly enjoy the precariousness of my situation.

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