Sunday, February 28, 2010

mr. proper

he's not clean in kazakhstan. he's just polite.

Mr. Proper

pooch chow

hey, remember the pooches? i've long wondered what all the strays eat. our translator told us that some people feed them, but i've never seen anyone pay any attention to all the dogs.

while we were waiting for our ride today, we saw something furry on the ground.
Goat's Feet

that's right! it's a set of goats' feet (and ankles too). you can tell because the fur is still on them and they have cloved hoofs. we found these lying in a spot in a residential area that has a high density of strays, even for taraz. our guess is that someone left these out for the dogs to chew on. either that or the tarazi goats have detachable legs and they fell off by accident.

Friday, February 26, 2010

11 months

that's how old noz jr. is today. to celebrate, the government of kazakhstan is not making me hide my ass today.

which means i should post something. so i am.

he just won't give me a break

so much sharkey stuff to keep up with while i'm out here in kazakhstan.

even worse

when i saw this headline my first thought was: it's about time that weird al gets to run a country.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

mid-air arrest

i don't understand how iran was able to arrest abdolmalek rigi on a flight from dubai to krygyzstan. how do iranian agents get authority to make an arrest on that flight? which country would have jurisdiction to make an arrest in the air on an international route?

i thought the governing legal authority is the country of the air carrier. but the dubai to bishkek flight presumably was with an emirati airline (kyrgyzstan airlines doesn't fly to dubai). that wouldn't give iranians any arresting powers. they would have to ask the emiratis to do it, and then hope that the emiratis would honor the request.

maybe i'm wrong about what law applies. maybe the iranian agents waited until they were in iranian airspace before making the arrest? did the security officians in dubai let them on board with weapons? and then they landed (presumably in bishkek), there's no guarantee that the kyrgyz authories would let the iranians keep their detainee. and even if they did, wouldn't that be an extradition process?

does anyone know how this could have worked? the fact that the arrest was aided by pakistan doesn't answer the in-the-air jurisdiction question.

meanwhile, bishkek is just down the road from taraz. local excitement!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

good, but i'm not sure if it's better

it's about time that the state department drop its travel advisory for syria. when i visited syria in 2005, the advisory was something of a joke. syria was possibly the safest place i have ever been. it's a police state! unlike a lot of places i've been (including philadelphia), i didn't have to worry about muggers or pickpockets at all. the warning had more to do with politics than any actual danger. which is why plenty of people, like me, disregarded the warning and went anyway. it really was pretty common to meet another american in damascus. politically motivated warnings just end up discrediting the travel advisory system.

i'm glad they're finally dropping this one about syria, but the fact that the obama administration is still presenting the change as some sort of olive branch to damascus isn't a good sign either. if it were a credible system, a change in the advisory shouldn't be considered a gesture in either direction.

thinking it through

every time i read about something like this, i wonder how much the potential diplomatic blowback was considered before israeli officials approved the operation in dubai. does it enter into their cost-benefit analysis at all? or were they so focused on pulling off a successful operation (meaning both a successful assassination and a clean getaway) that they don't consider how badly israeli relations would be damaged if the passports used by the operatives came out?

i suspect that they didn't think about it at all, notwithstanding the fact that this exact thing has blown up in their face before (those cases involved canadian and new zealander passports). it's not just israel that makes me wonder. officcials from a lot of countries often approve potentially reckless operations. it always looks like they don't think about blowback until it's too late.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

the olympic spirit

much like every other sporting event, i’m not interested in following the olympics at all. the olympics as an institution, however, is a little more interesting. but its alleged purpose has always puzzled me. the olympic movement’s philosophy is that by bringing together the nations to compete together in sporting competitions, it will help foster mutual understanding among different people of the world. my impression, however, is that sports competitions, especially international competition where teams are identified by country, tends to do just the opposite. it brings out a lot of crass nationalism and tends to otherize the people of foreign countries even more. the internationalism that the olympic games are supposed to stand for stands in stark contrast to the nationalism that it brings out when the games are going on.

the contradiction seems to be completely invisible to the olympic organizers and to olympic aficionados, who sometimes parrot the official line about bringing together the world even as they cheer teams solely on the basis of the flag they fly.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

the tarazi wallbanger

pour chilled cherry juice into a tall drinking glass. add an amount of al-farabi cognac that is commensurate with your feelings of helplessness and despair from the endless waiting for a court date that never comes.

garnish with the calcium flakes that come from the tap water here and that probably coat the inside of the glass anyway unless you did the dishes with bottled water.


wooden shoe wearing surrender monkeys

anyone who thinks that the u.s.-led coalition in afghanistan is in an endless slog and hasn't accomplished much lately should pay closer attention. it successfully toppled the dutch government.

Friday, February 19, 2010

useless things i learned in kazakhstan 3

they have a seatbelt law in kazakhstan. the law seems to be both enforced and widely flouted at the same time, which makes a pretty entertaining combination. at least to someone as easily amused as me. i've been told that if a police officer sees anyone in the front seats (driver or passenger) of a car, they will be pulled over and fined. it also gives the cop an opportunity to ask for a bribe, so police don't hesitate to find and flag down offenders.

kazakhstanis on the whole, however, seem to hate wearing seatbelts. especially when driving. most of the time that we're in a car they go beltless. until they spot a cop. then they either snap on the belt on or pretend to have it on until they are past the police.

when we took the 4.5 hour trip to turkestan and back, it was entertaining to watch the driver and front seat passenger pull the belt across their bodies every so often. whenever they did, i'd look up and, sure enough, there was a cop. the folks in the front wouldn't latch the belt, they would just hold it so the shoulder strap was visible across their body. once the police were in the rear view mirror they would let go and the seatbelt would snap back to the side of the car. i watched them do it again and again. it seemed like a lot of trouble to go through. wouldn't it be easier just to leave the belt on?

one of the drivers who we use pretty often never wears a seatbelt, nor does he fake it like the others i've seen. at one point i asked our translator about that and she told me that he is a former police officer. all the cops in this town are his friends, they would never pull him over.

or maybe not all of them. once when we were parked somewhere, i noticed the ex-cop driver latched the belt before he started up the car. i looked down the street and there were a bunch of police, including someone who looked like someone important, standing on the sidewalk. the driver's belt came off just after we rounded the first corner.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

and if he wants to discuss it he knows where to find me: in the munroe county maximum security correctional facility for men...

yesterday was originally the date on our plane tickets home. (that is, yesterday to me. to those in the states, and to the timestamp on this blog, it's still today). it never was a real return date. when we booked the ticket i told the agent we had no idea when we would return. the best estimate i had was two months, so he picked the date for me, available seats roughly 60 after our december 19th arrival-in-kaz date.

it's two months later and i still have no idea when we will return. the estimate is wrong, obviously, but how wrong? i don't even know if this trip is half over yet. the plane ticket has been rebooked. we have elastic return tickets. that is, we paid a little extra when we bought the tickets so that we can change our return flights as many times as we want with no fee. i just have to make sure that we don't accidentally pass the current date of return without rebooking again. i can't rebook without a fee once we miss the flight. our current ticketed return date is march 4th, i had to look it up just now to get the date right (not good sign). it's certain to be wrong too. i need to move it again eventually. i keep waiting for the info that will let me roughly calculate our actual return date.

it's frustrating and a little infuriating. but we're stuck. we've been stuck many times throughout this process. each time up until now we eventually became unstuck. but each time the waiting itself has been the hardest part. there was a time that i just told myself once i get on the plane the waits-without-end would finally end. i don't know why i thought that was the case. at every step the powers that be made us wait longer than we thought during the bits leading up to our trip here, why would i ever think that they would act differently just because we were here?

Monday, February 15, 2010

everybody loves the ides of february!

just because i'm still in kazakhstan doesn't mean i can't keep up my annual traditions:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

capital city

in 1998, kazakhstan took a backwater provicial capital called akmola (kazakh for "white tomb"), renamed it "astana" (kazakh for "capital"), and made it the nation's capital. akmola was a frozen in the winter, mosquito-infested in the summer kind of place. but in the past 10+ years astana has emerged as a shining city built in the middle of nowhere, fueled mostly by kazakhstan's oil wealth. kind of like a dubai of the steppe. or maybe a brasilia not of the amazon.

in any case, if you're going to transform a small town into a big modern capital, you don't just need buildings. you also need people. and so, the kazakhstani government encouraged people to come to astana.

the encouragement seems to have worked. astana is now the second biggest city in kazakhstan (almaty, the capital before 1998, is the first), notwithstanding its remote location and harsh climate.

when we tell people we are interested in seeing kazakhstan, everyone suggests we see astana. plus, astana is promoted everywhere in subtle ways. the clock in our hotel lobby says it is set to "astana time" even though that happens to be the same as taraz time. the upper right corner of the browser at this internet cafe gives the local weather in astana, not here. even though astana has a completely different climate from here. the new housing complex built across the presidential park is named after astana. the national airline is called "astana", etc. astana is always in the air.

all this astana-talk has gotten me pretty curious. i would love to go. there are four flights a week between taraz and astana. mrs. noz is not sold on a weekend trip yet largely because of the weather. astana is the second coldest national capital in the world (after ulaan baatar, mongolia). during our daily internet cafe visits this winter we have often seen mid-day temperatures for that city at around -25 degrees C. (right now is a balmy -16). damn that browser-based weather report!

Friday, February 12, 2010

highlights of a young day

the day is barely halfway through and so far the highlights include:

(1) having a baby throw up all over my shirt,

(2) being treated to a private dombra concert, and

(3) visiting a historic former bathhouse, now museum (possibly the last historic thing left in taraz that we haven't already done).

take it from me, #2 and 3 are much cooler if you experience them while reeking of baby-vomit.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

flash cards are scary

this is completely ridiculous, but not nearly as common as people seem to think. until i took this trip to kazakhstan, i think i have traveled with arabic flash cards and/or other materials in arabic on every flight i have taken since 9/11. almost all of those flights either began or ended in philadelphia international airport. i have never had any problem at all.

at times my arabic studies have produced an interesting conversation on the flight, but otherwise my games of "spook the air marshal" are more of a joke than anything i really worry about. i've even been picked out of line for random, more intrusive screening. notwithstanding my incriminating copy of hans wehr in my carry-on, i have never experienced any special delays.

still, i realize it does happen to some people some times. but for every daniel rubin that makes headlines there are a ton of people who do not have an idiot for a screener. they pass through security on their merry way even with things in their bag that are printed in a funny script.

(via MatthewB)

it's a crazy world. someone oughta sell tickets.

during the course of today i learned that:

1. a friend of ours in pennsylvania has a contact in the kazakh court system.

2. said contact lives in astana (the capital) but happens to be in taraz right now on a business trip.

3. not only is that contact staying in the same hotel as us, but she has been living in the room almost directly above us for the past week.

we'll see if this makes any difference.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

holy shit i understand something!!! twice!

other than english, the only two languages that i have ever been able to hold a conversation in are french and arabic. the languages here are russian and kazakh, both pretty different from the ones i know. but thanks to peter the great, russian has a bit of french in it. and thanks to the spread of islam, kazakh has a bit of arabic in it as well (also arabic was influenced by ottoman turkish, a close relative to kazakh).

that doesn't mean that either french or arabic are much help here. but every once in a while there is a word that is similar enough to something that i know. for example, both words in the name of the ruling party here, nur otan, come from arabic.

so far i've only found one instance where the arabic-kazakh connection and the french-russian connection converge, and that's the word for "shop":

(the french/russian word for "shop" is also originally from arabic. convergences everywhere!)

Monday, February 08, 2010


surely this must happen every once in a while. how many nicks are there in the u.s. foreign service?

(via the explananda candy bowl)

Sunday, February 07, 2010

winter wonderland

i have a real knack for missing out on the best east coast snow storms. i spent the past three winters bitching endlessly about how lame the weather was, too warm, not enough snow, etc. so then i leave the country and philly gets slammed with two blizzards that each dump more than a foot of snow on our house. d'oh!

on the other hand, the winter here is taraz (while mild this year according to the natives) is still much better than the average philly winter. we've had a bunch of snow storms in the 6 weeks we have been here. none left more than a foot (pronounced "30 centimeters" in kazakh) but we got about 6 inches (14 cm) yesterday and it's been snowing since we woke up this morning. that was seven hours ago. i'm not sure how much more we will get, piled up on top of the snow from yesterday. during othe past six weeks here, there could be more net snow here than i'm missing in the states.

luckily, we've never had enough to cancel our orphanage visits. they don't seem to cancel anything because of snow here. yesterday, i told our translator about how whenever a snow storm is forecast in the u.s., everyone runs to the supermarket to stock up on food. "why do they do that?" she asked. my question exactly.

meanwhile, almost everyone i know in the mid-atlantic feels compelled to tell me about the snowstorm that i'm missing at home. they roughly fall into two groups: those that say "i bet you're sorry you're missing this!" and those that say "you're lucky to be missing this!" it's a pretty good test of how well these people know me.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

useless things i learned in kazakhstan 2

there's a major prejudice against chinese-made goods here. when we were in the clothing portion of the bazaar earlier in the week every seller tried to emphasize that the clothes were made in turkey. what they really were saying is that they weren't made in china. and what that really means is that the clothes aren't bad quality.

earlier in the trip one kazakh told me that most of the stuff in their stores are made in china. "they are not good quality, like you get in the u.s." pointing to my coat. when i showed her my coat's "made in china" label, she said "did you get that here?" she was genuinely surprised when i told him that almost everything in stores in the u.s. is made in china as well.

i'm not sure whether this is just a stereotype about chinese products or if the chinese really do dump off their worst crap into the central asian markets. in the u.s. people grumble about how everything is chinese made, but few think that the label automatically means a cheap crappy product. in the u.s. just about everything is made there, whether really good or really bad.

Friday, February 05, 2010

the weight dilemma

one of the many annoyances we have to deal with here is the fact that noz jr.'s weight is apparently a state secret. we asked how much he weighs on the first day we met him, six weeks or so ago. and we have asked again on a regular basis ever since. they keep telling us we will get it eventually, but so far at least this "eventually" has never come.

i have a few ideas on how to solve the problem. there are these older women who sit on the streets of taraz and sell little packs of chewing gum. a few of them, including one not too far from where we are staying, has a scale and charges people a few cents to be weighed. i'm thinking of asking her how much she makes from weighing on the average day and then pay her that amount to rent her scale for one of our two hour visits to the orphanage. but my russian and kazakh abilities are way too limited to describe this plan to her. without a translator, i'm not sure if it's feasible.

another idea is to get a big bag of sand. we bring the bag with us on the visit and then hold noz jr. in one arm and the bag of sand in the other. mrs. noz would scoop sand out of the bag until i thought the bag and the boy each weighed about the same. then we'd take the bag to the lady on the street and pay her to weigh it. unfortunately that plan depends on my ability to accurately guage when things i'm holding weigh the same. also, i am aware that it didn't work for indiana jones.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

they don't just turn anything into vodka here

in turkestan there was a big statue of abu nasr al-farabi. there's another statue of him just a few blocks from us in taraz. before i got to kazakhstan, al-farabi was one of those philosophers who i had heard of and was vaguely aware that he had something to do with bringing ancient greek texts to the islamic world, but didn't know a whole lot more.

i'm still far from being an expert, but i am pretty sure that the famous muslim philosopher wouldn't have wanted to be immortalized as a brand of cognac.
al-Farabi Cognac

likewise, when we visited turkestan it was probably the most religious place i have encountered since i got to this country. the mausoleum of khoja ahmed yasavi attracts pilgrims, so i suppose that makes the area around it cater to a more religious sort. but that doesn't stop the locals from making turkestan brand cognac. they even have a sketch of the famous mausoleum on the label. plus the sketch is from the side that was designed to look like the word "allah" in arabic.
Turkestan Cognac
classy! and at 150 tenge to the dollar, turkestan is the best cognac two dollers and thirty cents can buy.


in 2008 i alluded to how bryant gumbel may have screwed up our efforts to adopt. today i was told that this tabloid story about a person that i never heard of might be causing problems with our current project.

as frustrating as this is, i must admit i am impressed by the sheer variety of pitfalls we have faced in this process.

Monday, February 01, 2010


taraz is overrun with stray dogs. when we walk around outside, they are everywhere. well, everywhere except in front of my camera when a pack is on the move. it's pretty common to see groups of 8-12 moving through the streets. but everytime i have my camera out and ready they suddenly aren't around. the best i could do is the above photo of a pack of strays sunning themselves in the unseasonably warm weather yesterday.

more often i see them running through the streets. which means that whenever i pick up some huggies in the supermarket, i expect a pack to start chasing me through the aisles. it hasn't happened yet. maybe it would if i wore a panty on my head.