12 July 2002
I didn't take this picture, unfortunately. I clipped it off the 'Net just before this trip abroad. It's a cool picture and it says alot. It's a very symbolic melding of cultures, races, statuses, sexes, colors... everything. It was taken during Bono's "Odd Couple Tour" of South Africa with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill. They were there looking at AIDS relief efforts and the poverty situation which is partly the result of the enormous amounts of debt service the countries are paying to lender nations.
And to think the woman probably doesn't even know who that guy in the funky shades is or why so many people are interested in taking their picture!
In a lame attempt to give credit where credit is due, the picture came from AP (most likely) off either The New York Times or The Washington Post. If I knew it'd wind up on my site, I'd have made a note of the photographer's name.
Anyway, it's here as a sort of reference point. This seems like the way it should be; just imagine it. Back when I arrived in Atyrau, I joked about the song "Imagine" but a week later it was played in the Chagala's Lounge Bar. Perhaps a change from the Leninist way to the Lennonist is still a possibility. But this photo is a marvel for another reason: Throwing your arms around the world is no small feat and it's not easy making that level of magic happen.
When I first heard about Atyrau from more than a couple of people who had been there, I thoroughly expected to spend every free moment in O'Neill's. After all, it was a no-man's land where walking around alone at night was a no-no, there were no sites to see, and absolutely nothing to do except work. Even on the weekends.
In reality, unless you prefer to stay within your comfort zone as much as possible and suffocate yourself in the process, that's not the case. There are many people here to be embraced. Of course there are the shady characters. But they can be found all over the world: New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, Denver... Just like the Good Souls.
Last night, the last night in Atyrau for this go 'round, was interesting. Most of the project's crew was on hand for some beverages, including Peter Meier. I played an absolute crap game of pool; I was kind of embarrassed. I'm usually at least OK. But not last night.
Anyway, after a couple rounds (of pool and Guinness), we hung out and chatted for a while.
The conversation went back to my shorts, oddly enough. Things slowly changed perspective for me after James, a well-traveled English chap, related some of his South American experiences to me. (Visit his site at NotOverYet.com for some cool stories.)
For the men in this country, wearing trousers is a way of aspiring to something greater. The men want respect. They want to look presentable at all times in case an opportunity arises (such as the man walking along the river a couple weeks ago, eager to exchange information in hopes of finding a job).
In this case, grown men wearing shorts is a sign of arrogance. Women wear them because they have limited aspirations.
But I'm not sure I fully agree with this. It seems to me the women of Atyrau are the real go-getters and some of them wear shorts. Nonetheless, I still have the nagging feeling everything I know is wrong.
Well, this stint is complete. I didn't find Saddam or Osama, but perhaps next time.
The trip ended in a rush: Our departure was bumped up from 10:45 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. I found out at 8:57 and performed the swiftest packing job of my life. Good thing there wasn't all that much to lug around.
The biggest dread in all this was returning through the whole customs process. While on line, I spoke with a South African who didn't like the Kazakh customs process, but he was convinced Nigeria is the absolute worst. If you can survive Nigerian customs, he said, you can survive anything.
Ironically, on the way to the airport, I noticed a slogan on the terminal tower: "Happy Ways" (it was in both English and Russian (or Kazakh).
Everything's in one room. There's the bag scanner at one end, next is customs, then "Chek In" for baggage check, and finally passport control.
It seems as though a visit to customs isn't complete without some sort of snafu. This time, my blunder was going to Chek In before customs declaration. It's the slight difference between one desk and another, nothing more. The customs clerk waved her finger at me as I got my bag back.
With the bag retrieved and ready for inspection, the clerk then commented on my small handwriting on the front of the form and pointed at the blank back side. I got the message. But I was actually following the rules on the form the way I filled it out. She showed it to a cohort; he looked at my passport lying on the counter, chuckled and murmured something. Probably "Sheesh. American."
After all the hassle of getting my checked bag back, though, the clerk simply asked a question or two, stamped my papers, and let me proceed.
Once again: Observation time in the lounge. They've rearranged the furniture. The Atyrau Consulary was moved from the front left corner to the middle on the left. I like what they've done in this small move; much better feng shei.
This time the flight wasn't quite full; there was nobody next to me, so I had good room for spreading out and I slept the whole flight.
Back in the Budapest airport, it was time to unwind and breath easy. I'm back in Zooropa.
And I'm still convinced the future is no longer in the hands of the "well dressed." The men and women wearing fancy, expensive suits had their chance to impress, but they failed. They turned the respectability such dress was supposed to "command" into a charade. After all, how many times are you told while growing up that it's not the outside that matters, but the inside?
The future lies in the hands of those of us with soul. And we prefer black leather, blue sunglasses... and shorts.
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