Monday, August 28, 2006

Hello All,

See below our last posting from our summer documentary project, this one from our last stop -- Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We've also posted 2 new video clips. We're back in the US now to put our film together; we'll let you know when it's finished and how you can check it out.

Thanks for keeping abreast of our around-the-world adventure -- we've enjoyed sharing it with you, and hearing from some of you along the way.

-- Eleni, Scott, Steve

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM: I'm not sure what I expected when I came to Vietnam. Perhaps classic scenes of rice patties, dotted with workers in their conical hats. To be sure, there are plenty of rice patties. But the Vietnam we've experienced is bustling with the energy of country embracing opportunity and making up for lost time.

Thanh Nguyen– our KSG profile – straddles the line between Vietnam's past and its future. His grandfather was a prominent military officer in Ho Chi Minh's army during the war with the States and his parents both studied and lived in Cuba with the support of the Soviet Union. Thanh has an unabashed reverence for Ho Chi Minh. Yet, Thanh also has an almost equal enthusiasm for the power of free markets.

Doi Moi – the "renovation" of the economy by the central government begun in the mid 1980s - is an ongoing, and thus far, enormously successful endeavor. Vietnam went from a country unable to feed its own people in the mid80s, to the largest exporter of rice in the world, the second largest exporter of coffee, and a huge exporter of fruit and fish.

We felt the energy of free enterprise in the markets and street vendors of Ho Chi Minh City as well as along the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's bread basket accounting for about one sixth of Vietnams annual GDP. The question of whether Vietnam's economic success will eventually result in political liberalization lingers. Time will tell.

Such weighty questions aside, it's been a fascinating and fun experience here punctuated by daily avacado smoothies, driving rickshaws through the city streets, market stalls of cleanly shaven pig ear, and a floating fish farm along the Mekong. Thanh's contagious and easy laugh, his willingness to share his insights and stories and his passion for moving Vietnam forward through education and policy research have been a great way to end our project. If political liberalization does someday occur, we wouldn't be surprised to see Thanh in high office.


See 2 new VIDEO CLIPS below...
GETTING AROUND HO CHI MINH CITY: Eleni explores Vietnamese cuisine (pig ear and sheep(?) brain); Scott and Steve race cycle-rickshaws through busy streets; the team takes a riverboat ride down the mighty Saigon river...

VILLAGE VISIT: Watch 150 adorable kids welcome us to a rural mountain village 5 hours outside of Darjeeling, with some seriously cute singing and dancing...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

DARJEELING, INDIA: Arjun, Germina, Menuka. I don’t think I’ll easily forget these names. We’ve found our way to a town called Darjeeling, where the thick monsoon mist seems to hold magic in it. Perched in the mountains at a height of 2200m, I’ve felt humbled by this place – not by the Himalayas proudly towering in the horizon – but by the purity, generosity and openness of heart of the KSG grad we’re profiling, Noreen Dunne, the “hill people” as she calls them, and her NGO Hayden Hall.

The trip here was a long one: a two-hour flight from Delhi followed by a four-hour steep car ride. The sticky hot air – even worse in Bagdogra, where we flew into, than in Delhi – quickly gave way to a cool mountain breeze as the temperature dropped a good 8-10˚C and our car laboured up the decrepit and landslide-prone road.

Darjeeling feels very post-colonial British. I can vividly imagine the Victorians sipping afternoon tea at the Windermere or Elgin hotels (the oldest and poshest here), inhaling the clean air (the town was a British sanatorium, as well as exotic holiday destination) and once at home exclaiming to their fellow socialites, you must visit Darjeeling, you simply must... The British legacy is in some ways here still even as India celebrates its Independence Day on August 15th. Union jacks adorn many of the taxi-jeeps, British-introduced tea plantations dominate the hills and British-style uniform-clad girls and boys rush to a St. Michael’s or St. Joseph’s school.

First impressions taken in along with a cup of tea, as soon as dawn breaks in “Darj” we head to Hayden Hall with our host. Hayden Hall, where Noreen is the deputy director, is an NGO that addresses issues affecting women and children, aiming to improve their quality of life. Among other things, it provides paramedic training for female villagers, health care facilities, housing, daycare for children so their mothers can work, schooling, weaving training and a shop to sell the handcrafted goods at.

The short walk over takes longer than planned; Noreen seems to be the most popular person in town. This, she tells us, is due to her being a teacher for over 35 years. Her students are everywhere: at the tourist information office, our hotel, the police and local government.

The first woman we meet at Hayden Hall is Kabita. She is weaving a colourful carpet that will take her three months to finish and will sell for 4000 rupees (just under $100) at the shop. Our next stop, of which there are many in the five days we spend at Hayden Hall, is the classroom. Nine-year-old Arjun sings us a Hindi pop song (though his features are Mongolian – same for most people here at Darjeeling who speak Nepali as their mother tongue - Hindi is learned at school and is the language of commerce), while his classmates crowd around Scott’s camera. Scott has made an incredible discovery that has lit up all their small faces: point the camera at the children and flip the digital LCD screen towards them and they are drawn to you like bees to honey, chuckling and clapping their little hands at their image. Next, the paramedic trainee women let us sit in one of their classes and film them learning about micro finance so they can be savvy when purchasing medical drugs. Their smiles, like those of the children, are genuine - there are definitely no fake niceties here.

In the past few days we’ve consistently come across clear smiling eyes that warm your heart, stark colours and joy-filled “namaste”s. All this from children with white stains on their cheeks due to malnutrition, children and their caretakers at Hayden Hall’s sick ward, women picking tea leaves for ten rupees a kilo (less than 25c) and 250 village school kids and their teachers that welcomed us with songs and laughter - though they have to walk 4-6 hours daily to get to school. The “hill people” are truly remarkable in their strength.

And of course, Noreen. Motionless words on a page could never quite capture her energy, enthusiasm and love for her people, which she has so generously shared with us.

We’re back battling with road potholes down to Bagdogra and on to Delhi tomorrow, before we head on to Vietnam. We’ll be up at 3am to film the sunrise for a second time – maybe this time we’ll be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Everest if it’s a clearer day. But even if the clouds roll over and obscure that perfect shot of the Himalayan mountain range once more, I won’t mind too much. Even without seeing Everest, I’m feeling very lucky already.


Our blistering hot trip to the TAJ MAHAL, due to a "critical mistake" with our taxi's air conditioning system... Look out for our Indian tour guide, who preferred speaking JAPANESE with Steve instead of giving us a tour in English...

CLIMBING THE FOOTHILLS: Our twising van ride up to DARJEELING, INDIA -- famous British tea town in the foothills of the Himalayans (almost 5,000 meters above sea level), and location of our next profile, Indian KSG alum Noreen Dunne...

SEE US IN ACTION: A look at our documentary work at HAYDEN HALL, the social services organization that Noreen Dunne, our Indian KSG profile, works at. CUTE KIDS abound...

Our 4 AM trip up TIGER HILL outside Darjeeling, with views of the HIMALAYAS -- including Kachenjenga and MT. EVEREST... accompanied by a rowdy group of religious singers determined to sing in the sunrise...

Our journey on Darjeeling's famous TOY TRAIN: Built by the British, it runs on steam at the blistering pace of about 2 miles per hour... marvel at the harrowing camera work as we chug along the foothills of the HIMALAYANS...

Monday, August 07, 2006

NEW DELHI, INDIA: Hello from India! We're back to blogging, and with a twist: VIDEO. Check out this 3-minute clip, as well as the 90-second clip at the bottom of our first dispatch from Delhi...

NEW DELHI, INDIA: We're back in blogging land, after a 2-week break from our KSG film project. Eleni was in Greece with family and friends; Scott in New York (for Boogs and Lisa's wedding), and Rome and Croatia; and I was in Bulgaria (visiting my Peace Corps buddy Maxwell Woods), and Greece.

We enjoyed our time away, but were excited to meet up in Athens and board a GULF AIR flight here to New Delhi, to begin the next leg of our documentary. (Oh, we had a layover in Bahrain -- yes, its a country, look it up; its also so hot that in the 12 meters we spent outside (between our plane and the terminal) we each lost six pounds of sweat. Seriously: Bahrain is an oven).

India. What can you say? A land where all the cliches become truth: mine-boggling contrasts, incredible diversity, and a frenetic pace make every move an exercise in sensory overload. We've only been here one day but are already feeling the pulse of an extraordinary country in our veins.

First impressions of Delhi: a harrowing 4 AM cab ride from the airport to our hotel. This driver was seriously crazy. At one point, he almost killed a mo-ped driver and a riskshaw driver (not to mention us) as he accelerated into traffic; then he cackled like some character out of a horror movie when we begged him to slow down.

The images that sped by us as we careened towards the city were hard to place in the morning light. People waking up from trash-strewn slums near the airport. A man taking a shower underneath a spigot in the middle of the street. A rickshaw driver taking a wizz on the side of the highway as his passenger patiently waited inside.

A day of walking around Old Delhi's markets confirmed our initial impressions of the city: pure chaos. It's almost impossible to comprehend how many people, cars, trucks, cows, horses, bikes, rickshaws, busses, and dogs use the same streets in this jam-packed city. Packed shoulder to shoulder with literally thousands of other people doing their business, we looked around and saw no order to the madness. But the people around us seemed perfectly content with the crazy pace of life here. There is obviously some underlying order to the chaos.

We ended our day at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in all of India. Delhi -- before the partition of India and Pakistan that took place in 1947 -- was primarily a Muslim city and though today it is largely Hindu, it retains considerable Muslim influence. Jama Masjid was stunning: a courtyard big enough for 25,000 people to kneel and pray, surrounded by beautiful red stone walls and towering minerats, one of which we climbed up to see a beautiful view of the sunset, including the hundreds of kites that dotted the sky as children got in their last hours of play-time before the daylight faded.

Eleni and Scott are enjoying their first taste of India. For me, I'm enjoying time back here in Delhi, one of my favorite Indian cities during the time I spent here 3 years ago. We currently have a bet going (100 rupees) to see who can last the longest without getting "Delhi belly" (you can guess what that means).

Despite all the traffic and the chaos, New Delhi is a robust city with a lot to offer. Walk 50 feet with wide eyes in this city, and you can collect enough facial expressions to span the entire spectrum of human emotion. Much to see and much to learn.

We're here for a few more days and then off to Darjeeling, a mountain-stop village in NE India which -- along with being famous for its tea - is home to Noreen Dunne, the next KSG grad we're featuring in our documentary. Noreen is a college professor who also works with a charity she helped start called Hayden Hall, whch assists women and children in the Darjeeling area.


Here's our second clip from Delhi, our first impressions of the city...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Zdravo from Belgrade.

Our final day in Tbilisi was highlighted by a morning service at the largest orthodox church in the country (and according to some Georgians the largest in the world). The service was fascinating and beautiful both for the ritualistic ceremony and for the songs of a men’s choir which filled the cavernous spaces.

We had an early dinner and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. We awoke at 3AM Monday morning to get our 4:45 flight to Vienna. As we took off dawn had just begun to spray morning light over the hills enveloping Tbilisi. By the time we arrived to Belgrade via Vienna and Munich, the sun had already passed its apex and begun its slow descent toward the western horizon.

We are staying in the center of Belgrade at the flat of Richard Danicic - a current Kennedy School student who has just started his one year mid career program as a Kokkalis fellow. Close by is Republic Square and Mihalova street – the long pedestrian avenue along which people stroll and stop to enjoy an espresso or ice cream at one of the scores of cafes or stands.

It’s been a busy couple of days. The afternoon we arrived we met Ana Trbovich – former assistant minister of foreign economic affairs - and Vuk Jeremic – senior foreign policy to the President. We spent much of today with Katarina Veljovic, a former assistant minister of finance and who is now involved in fostering Serbia’s ongoing transition to a market economy through her work in both the private and non-profit sectors, and through her pursuit of a PHD.

Ana, Vuk and Katarina are energetic and ambitious and seem to represent a new generation of Serbs who are part of building Serbia’s governmental institutions and re-establishing Serbia’s place internationally. In spite of the progress these past years, the shadow of Milosovic and the Balkan war of the 1990s remain. Some of the buildings destroyed by the NATO bombing campaign remain in the city center, undisturbed, like some reminder of the consequences of tyranny and unbridled nationalism.

Though generally optimistic, the Serbians we met also have expressed a degree of skepticism about the political future and whether policy changes will have enough of an impact on employment and the quality of life for the current government to get re-elected in upcoming elections.

After Tbilisi, being in Belgrade feels very much like returning to Europe – the cars, the roads, the cafes, the shops, the infrastructure all feel distinctly European. Even the language, though Slavic, feels more familiar and understandable because it also uses the roman alphabet.

Last night we met up with Nina Bilandzic – a MPA-ID who is working for the European Bank this summer here in Belgrade and a few of her friends. Nina took us to Silicon Valley - an area of Belgrade renowned for its nightlife and so-named because of the scenery to be found within the street’s bars and cafes. By all appearances, there didn’t seem to be many IT professionals out and about. It was a fun night filled with interesting conversation.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Kachapuri. The local cheese and bread staple snack. Apparently that’s all I’ve been asking for the past few days and who could blame me? Georgian food is incredibly tasty.

And the Georgians are very proud, not only of their food and wine, but mostly of having preserved their language and culture after years of occupation and Soviet rule.

We spent a day at the home of Gela Bezhuasvili (the Georgian Foreign Minister and K-School grad that we are profiling) and had the chance to talk with him, among other things, about Georgian pride. The sense of freedom and liberty, he told us, is very strong in Georgians. This is a country at a crossroads he enthusiastically said, with a very ambitious reform agenda aiming to be part of NATO and a fully integrated European state. If Gela’s overflowing energy and generosity has anything to do with it, Georgia certainly seems well-equipped to get there.

Gela and his wife Olga welcomed us in their house like old friends, spent three hours with us, and even let in another unexpected visitor: journalists from the Georgian channel “The Sun” who were doing a story on us profiling Gela. An hour into our interview we were filming them, filming us, filming Gela. Things got confusing, but it all seems to be worth it as we anxiously await our Georgian TV debut this evening.

So while we have put the Lonely Planet guide under intense scrutiny while here, we can vouch for one thing the Ozzie travel writers got right: the warmness of Georgian hospitality. Our second piece of evidence - apart from the access we have been given to Gela, his home and his meetings (including meetings with foreign officials and a press briefing about the recent terrorist attack in the Georgian region of Ossetia) - is a Georgian girl named Lika.

Lika met us as we were reaching for our translation booklet in an effort to get directions. In her perfect English – and in what seemed like the same breath - she invited us to her house for dinner. We joined forces with Marissa Bohrer, a current Kennedy School student, who is doing her internship here working on women’s health issues for a USAID-funded NGO - and the next day headed to Lika’s. Little did Scott know that very soon he would be singing along to Mariah Carey so as not to offend our host, and Steve would be force-fed the third – and most deadly – kebabi while denying any knowledge of Frank Sinatra songs. I found myself spending some time talking in Greek to Lika’s grandmother, a Greek of Pontiac descent (her roots going back to ancient times when Pontiac Greeks lived along the Black Sea and were displaced at the same time the Armenian genocide occurred in the early 20th century).

After the third slice of kachapuri at Lika’s, it was time to go. The next morning, Saturday, was the first day we had a chance to get out of the city. Armed with hours of Tblisi and Gela footage, as well as a full belly, we were ready to explore the countryside. Gia, our driver courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, drove us to the magnificent cave monasteries of David Gareji. We got some great footage on the way there; the agricultural landscape stretched as far as one could see with a multitude of shades of green, and no cars or houses to be seen for miles.

Potholes, on the other hand, were plentiful. Georgian driving defied any notion of the Italians being bad drivers. And then Marissa informed us of the existence of the mysterious Georgian snake.

In the cool cave churches, and while looking out to Armenia and Azerbaijan at the top of that green hill, I can’t say all that seemed to matter to any of us one bit.

We're off to Belgrade tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Our flight to Tbilisi, Georgia landed in the middle of the night. And so after 29 hours of traveling, which included a 10 hour stopover in Munich, 6 German sausages, 2 delicious airplane meals, and 17 glasses of orange juice consumed by Eleni, we arrived in the Tbilisi airport at 3:30 am. Much to our joy, there was a tired-looking man with a “Harvard University” sign waiting for us at the gate. His name was Zurad, and he negotiated with customs officials to get us in the Diplomat line to have our passports stamped. Already, we were feeling like royalty.

That is, until we discovered that my green army rucksack hadn’t made it on the plane with us. Fortunately, it didn’t have any vital equipment inside (unless you consider things like “soap” or “deodorant” to be “vital”). After reporting the lost bag, we grabbed our equipment – a Cannon gL2 video camera, a tripod, 2 lavaliere microphones, a Sony handy-cam, and 60 mini-DV tapes – and hopped in a taxi for our hotel.

Tbilisi is a city with some real character. Fifteen years of independence from the Soviets have begun to put the city on course towards economic progress, but the predominant feel of the infrastructure is utilitarian and worn-down. That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. Old stone walls line the Mtkavri river, which cuts through an “old town” marked by cobblestone streets, cement archways that lead to private homes, and gorgeous cathedrals. Last night, a Tuesday, we wandered into 2 different cathedrals that were bustling with activity: Priests in long, silk robes shook strings of gold bells and burnt incense, as women covered in head scarves sung prayers in beautiful soprano. Most Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Before exploring the city and these churches, we had the chance to meet with Gela Bezhuasvili, our profile here in Tbilisi. Gela did an executive education program at the KSG a few years back, and started an MPA before being called by Georgia’s President to return at the Minister of Defense. He is now the Minister of Foreign affairs, and his demeanor is perfect for a diplomat: kind, welcoming, and downright jolly, he made us feel very at home in his office after we’d filmed him welcoming the newest Ambassador from Iran.

This will be an interesting week in Tbilisi. Georgia is a budding democracy in a critical region, the central caucuses. Nestled between the Black and Caspian Seas, Georgia contains a vital oil pipeline and represents the promise of post-cold war Eurasia. Georgia is taking its place in line to eventually join the EU: everywhere you see the Georgian flag, it is accompanied by the EU flag. Georgia’s crawl towards democracy was marked by the Rose Revolution in 2003, in which the current president, Michel Saakashvili, peacefully kicked out the country’s post-communist leader, Shevardnadze, with promises to fight corruption. The country’s interest in democracy has not been lost on the Bush Administration – the President’s visit here a few years ago is documented in T-shirts, posters, and even a street named called “George W. Bush Street.” Gela’s office was plastered in 8X10 photographs of his meetings with Bush, Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Collin Powell, and Senator Dick Lugar.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pictures from our first profile -- Marie Nelson, KSG class of 1998.