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BLOG – Daily missives from around the world

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The view from my window is a beach. A big beach with nothing on it but some fisherman huts and boats. I get up in the morning and walk down it.

This is Hambantota, a place that the Sri Lankan government has been trying hard to change by any means necessary, sparing no expense for the past five years.

It started out as the dream of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa: to transform his remote, feral home region into the country’s number two city. A massive deep sea port would be built, an industrial zone delineated, an international airport would be dropped between two wildlife preserves, a massive conference center erected, a cricket stadium thrown up, hundreds of kilometers of new highways laid, and a hotel and leisure area planned. It was to be a completely new city built out in the jungle — an entirely new economy — almost completely financed with Chinese money.

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But I look out of my window it is clear that the Hambantota dream is still a work in progress. The massive infrastructure projects have yet to have any real observable local impact in terms of business development, seemingly operating in virtual isolation from their surroundings. All of a sudden there was a deep sea port, an international airport, a massive conference center — life goes on.

Ship coming in to the deep sea port.

Ship coming in to the deep sea port.


The deep sea port is located in a place that the locals now call China Harbor. There is no subverting the fact that what started out as a local president’s vision that was financed with Chinese money has become a Chinese project, more and more owned and operated by China. Sri Lanka couldn’t pay their debtor, they couldn’t properly develop their projects, so China is slowly taking over. Hambantota is to become a major station on China’s Maritime Silk Road.

The local reaction?

“We don’t want to see it like Dubai, with big buildings everywhere and no trees,” said a local man who works at a small hotel. “This is Sri Lanka, we like green. All of this development, I’ve seen it since I was a kid. They make some new buildings but the city, the city is still the same.”

When asked what he thinks of China Harbor he just shrugged, as though it was something remote and irrelevant, far removed from his life and hometown, rather than the fortress right down the beach.

“The old government they start something then the new government they are slow to keep doing it.”

He shrugged and walked away. It had nothing to do with him.

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I walked down the beach and was waved over by some young fishermen. They saw me taking photos of their boats, which they painted up in many different colors — one being done up to look like a Jamaican flag with a Bob Marley head.

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They were sitting in a circle under a shoddily assembled stick and palapa hut. They had bloodshot eyes. The port had nothing to do with them, either. The only impact that it had was that they can’t fish in some of the places they used to and they now have to dodge the occasional freighter. They looked at me and smiled, invited me to sit down. I asked them questions. They just smiled.

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I came upon a thatched hut that two fishermen were sitting in front of. I asked about the port — the impact it has had on their lives and livelihood.

“They make it fail,” he said, pointing out the fact that very few ships actually come into the port.

“Is the fishing worse now?” I asked.

“Yes, very worse.”

“Can you fish by the port?”

“No, they have navy. Very dangerous.”

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I walked to town and flagged down a tuk-tuk. I wanted to go into the port. I was chased away by a security guard after I walked in through a construction area earlier, so I made to go in through the front door. I’ve been vising ports all across Southeast and South Asia during these research travels, and it is usually a rather involved process to get the proper accreditation to get inside. Not really complicated, just time consuming. I didn’t bother setting this up for Hambantota — my biggest interest here was the local impact. But the locals seemed to give me favorable odds at getting in.

“Can I visit the port?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Just go in.”

So I tried it. I got off the tuk-tuk at the administrative office, introduced myself, told them what I was doing, and asked if I could have a tour of the port.

The big, mustached man behind the desk shrugged and nodded. “Sure. What is your license plate number?”

“I don’t have a car.”

He looked puzzled, and said if I had a car that he could give me an entrance permit without any difficulties. I kept pushing the matter, asking for other options. He told me that I could sit outside the office and ask to tag along in the car of another visitor. However, he had no idea when another would show up.

I grabbed a chair and set it up in the shade outside, faced the parking lot, and waited. I fell asleep. When I woke up I noticed one of the office workers and the guards were flagging down cars as they passed by on the road. Were they helping me? One of the guys glanced back at me somewhat purposefully. They were.

Eventually, they found a guy with a car who had nothing better to do. I ran over and jumped in, accompanied by a port administrator.

We drove into the port through the phase II section, which was currently under construction. There was hardly even a road. I asked my questions, received answers, and got the photos I wanted for articles, the book, etc.

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Life goes on in Hambantota as though the international port and the airport and all of the other big development projects didn’t exist. The rural status-quo churns onward in spite of the landscape is physically changing. This is an attitude that I’ve seen along many stops of the New Silk Road. These massive infrastructure projects are often happening without much local engagement, as though somehow encapsulated, removed from the local ecosystem.

But this is only the first act of a very, very long show. The infrastructure framework is what is being put together now, and this is something that rarely produces immediate returns. However, after these pieces are in place, slowly, slowly city grows up around them. Slowly, everything changes — often to the extent that we will forget that the little village, the stoned fishermen and their Bob Marley boats, and the empty stretches of beach were ever there. We will then just take it for granted that the city has always been.

Sunset over the port

Sunset over the port

The events described here occurred in March 2016.

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It is an uncomfortable experience looking through the photo album of someone from Hambantota.

A small town at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, this place was nearly wiped out of existence by the tsunami of 2004, which killed at least 30,196 people in the country.

Almost invariably, every second or third person in the pictures are no longer around anymore.

“He isn’t here anymore,” Mahesh said. “He was killed by the tsunami.”

He then flipped the page in his old photo album as we sat together on the beach.

“He isn’t here anymore,” he pointed out a young guy whose arm was interlocked with a young version of himself. “He isn’t here anymore,” he pointed to another.

Eventually he began just pointing at people in photos and say a single word: tsunami.

“Tsunami.”

“Tsunami.”

“Tsunami.”

“Not many people talk about what happened here,” he continued. “More than 1,000 people died here on that day.”

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“What was this place like before?” I asked.

“I wish I didn’t have to remember anything from before,” he began. “I used to have a bungalow hotel on this beach. Look here, you can see it.”

He pointed to photo of him smiling in front of a bamboo and palapa house.

“It is gone now. I used to have a very nice jeep. It was taken away too.”

There were photos of him taking tourists into the jungle in that jeep. His jungle tours, his small hotel, and with his stall in the market where he sold fish was how he made up his livelihood. All of it was washed away in an instant.

“Here’s a picture of me selling fish.”

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The rippled and bent old 35mm photos that he was showing me told of a different era here. He was invariably smiling big in all his photos. He was young, muscular, and always with friends. Looking at his photos were like looking into someone’s rose-tinted memories of the past — only here it was unarguably the truth. The guy’s entire life was cleared away as he was in the jungle guiding a group of tourists. He returned to find everything gone.

Mahesh is now the night guard at a hotel on the beach that gets few guests. He touts at the bus station. His face is worn, his hair fell out. He never seemed to have recovered.

The entire place hasn’t. Much of what was destroyed was never built again.

Another man walked up to me later and told me his story. He was 58, lived his entire life in that small village.

“I once had a wife and two children,” he said. But they are all gone. Tsunami. Now I am all alone.”

He now sleeps at night in whatever unoccupied plastic lawn chair he can find on the beach. Tonight he is curled up on one in front of my door.

Editor’s note: These events happened in March 2016 and names were changed.

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Writing To Remember

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The SCMP was the first big publication that I ever regularly wrote for, and my editor there provided me with my first lesson in big journalism. I wrote a story about how expats in China were transitioning from running export based businesses to service sector businesses and how this mirrored China’s broader economic transition. I framed this story as a narrative — I included myself.

“Uh, can you make it more like a news story,” my editor requested.

No problem, I removed the “me.”

The same thing happened on my next article, and I got the point. It was an important lesson to learn.

As the years have rolled on I’ve found myself taking on more and more positions in big media, and the subsequent work load meant that more personal, narrative stories have been getting delayed — often to the point of never being written or published.

I’m realizing now that I’ve missed a large part of the story.

I’ve built up such a large body of stories on Vagabond Journey that adding a few more — or a few hundred more — doesn’t really alter the balance of how much money I make. Earnings waver with the winds of advertising, not anything I do. If I don’t write here it makes me X amount of money. If I do write here it makes me X amount of money. There’s really no substancial difference.

It seems to be a common assumption that the writer works for the reader, and should strive to give them what they want. To a large extent that’s true. But there are other reasons to write. It’s not all commodity.

This is my collection. It’s just a story… so that I can remember.

Writing preserves time. It’s like taking a sequence of observations, conversations, thoughts, experiences, and emotions and enclosing them inside of a plexiglass box. Every once in a while you can stumble back through your own museum and look at the little exhibits you’ve stored there. This is why I do this.

I want to have a storage facility for conversations, impressions, and experiences. Sometimes they are eventually extracted for sections of articles; most of the time it’s just something for my seven year old daughter and I to look through and talk about

If someone can follow this and like it, maybe read it each morning on the way to work, that’s excellent; but that’s not really why I’m still doing this.

On Vagabond Journey, I’m just writing to remember.

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Hasan Yasien in Sweden
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Throughout the past year I’ve been covering the story of Hasan Yasein, a Syrian refugee who was entrapped in the transit zone of Moscow Sheremetyevo airport.

I first met Hasan while connecting flights at Shermetyevo after departing from Kazakhstan, and we kept in touch ever since. I would write a little about his situation — stuck in the airport next to the duty free shops — and eventually a little momentum grew. People would find out about him and bring him essentials or just go to meet him during layovers. He became a defacto attraction of sorts, and images of his little hermitage across from the Burger King began making their way onto social media.

After a nine month internment, I am pleased to announce that Hasan was released and is now in Kalmar, in the south of Sweden. The UN High Commission of Refugees finally took decisive action and sprung him loose. He is now studying Swedish and will soon get a job.

But the Russian authorities still didn’t give him back his bag, which had been a major side plot to this story. I’ve now found out why: there was $3,000 in it.

However, this story ultimately had a happy ending.

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Business Is The World’s Language

British meeting Indians
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Economics is a system of communication. It is no mistake that the first words you learn in a foreign language when traveling are those which enable you to buy things.

“How much does it cost?”

“Too expensive.”

“I want.”

Travel is a continuous exercise in buying shit.

Trade is something that people everywhere can easily understand; it’s something that as a species we just get. One of my favorite types of stories are those of ancient mariners showing up on the shores of some remote locale for the first time and meetings with the people there. Almost invariably, if the two sides don’t immediately start killing each other, the rapidly engage in trade. Completely removed cultures all understood the same market fundamentals — which we really haven’t evolved very much away from today.

My first profession was in archaeology. I was young then and I gave it up as an academic pursuit when I realized that it was in large part the study of ancient economics.  I wanted to believe that I would find these non-materialistic ancient cultures who understood the true essence of life that could be reinstated as a model for our time. (Like I said, I was young.) What I found instead were obsessive, and often violent, capitalists and empire builders.

You research migration via trade goods, you can watch how cultures changed over time by their commodities, the earliest forms of writing were accounting records. Trade shows cultural alliances, it showed who is up and who is down, who is driving innovation, and who is copying and trying to keep up. Every big social movement in history is shown in economics.

The central market is the most ethnically diverse place in any city.

Economics is the story of everything.

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I can see the border of Belarus from my window. On the other side, not a mile away, is Brest, the largest city anywhere near here — a place that doesn’t have much except for the aforementioned border, the hotel I’m staying in, and a junkyard.

My wife and two daughters are with me. They are not impressed. My wife had a break down over what she took to be pubic hairs  on the floor of our room. I had to sneak into the appliance closet and procure a vacuum cleaner. They’ve expressed repeatedly how there is nothing to do. They’re really isn’t — well, unless they’re stricken by a sudden interest in Polish farming methods … or new developments that are going to rearrange the logistical map of a continent, as I am.

My wife was jealous that I was traveling in Europe for so long without her. She doesn’t really give a shit when I go off to Kazakhstan or Bangladesh or China. Europe though, Europe was something different. She came to Europe thinking of cobblestone streets and bistros; beautiful, cultured cities, cappuccinos at a sidewalk cafe in golden dusk.

I took her out to the Belarus border.

But she doesn’t complain. She makes jests, she laughs, but knows the score: I’m here for work. These are research travels and research travels generally mean going to the places that nobody else wants to go.

As a traveler, this strategy couldn’t produce better results. It’s tough to decide on your own to go out to Terespol, Poland for no reason at all. You just wouldn’t do it. It’s not going to happen. Research travels take you to places you’d never go to otherwise because the intrigue is some form of information that you’re chasing rather than the appeal of a place in and of itself.

When in a bout of rec travel it’s sometimes difficult to break away from the pull of the black holes of tourism. You dream about your travels as though you’re going out to be some kind of explorer but end up sitting around in Luang Prabang eating pineapple sticky rice with everyone else.

My first forays into research travels were those eight seasons I spent as an archaeologist. The places that profession would take me were outside of my conception — or pretty much that of anyone other than those who lived in them. It was as though my travel destinations were dictated by dart throws at a map. I spent a lot of time in places I didn’t know even existed — the absolutely normal, mundane places that all anyone did was eat and work and watch TV, and I liked it.

In journalism — especially on these big book projects — this geographical lottery is risen to another power. The intrigue is found in accessing particular people, observations, and events; the place is more often than not irrelevant. It’s a reverse arrangement of travel priorities, and often lands me in places like the border of Belarus with my wife asking why it smells like burning garbage.

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On Being A Trailblazer

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My daughter likes to tuck her pants into her socks. It may have started lackadaisically — not caring enough to fix her socks after putting them on after her pants — but has grown into a style.

She was recently going around with her pants proudly tucked into her socks when another little girl approached her.

“I also like wearing my socks over my pants,” she said, “but my mom won’t let me.”

“My daddy says that too,” Petra responded, “but I don’t have to listen because he also tells me that I should be a trailblazer, and this is what being a trailblazer is like.”

That is what a trailblazer is like — almost by definition.

Last year whenever I was in Xiamen I would walk Petra to school in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon. There were no other distractions and this gave us the opportunity to talk. She would ask me to teach her things, so I’d tell her all about the ways of axles and plants and how buildings are made. It also gave her the opportunity to talk about the challenges that she’s facing.

One day, she told me how all the Chinese kids would hang out all together and how she would sometimes feel a little left out. She told me about ho the other kids didn’t want to do what she wanted to do and how she felt as if she had to do what they were doing to be included. It was then that I told her about being a trailblazer.

“If you go out and do what you want to do without caring if the other kids like it there is a good chance that they will follow you.”

She thought about this for a moment but didn’t quite grasp the concept. She brought it up again repeatedly over the following months, citing various examples and asking if that was being a trailblazer or not. They usually weren’t. But the result was that that word “trailblazer” took on perhaps undue prominence, as she seemed to take it as one of the core virtues to shoot for.

But as time went on and her understanding of language became more complex, the concept of being a trailblazer seemed to wear itself into her little psyche.

Petra does what Petra wants to do, she likes what she likes. She plays by herself in the sandbox in the rain because that’s just what she likes to do.

The result:

“You shouldn’t have told me to be a trailblazer, dada,” she said to me yesterday in Warsaw with a laugh, “because it’s led to a lot more not-listenings.”

Or:

“Momma, I’m going to wear what I think is nice because I’m a trailblazer and you can’t stop me from doing that.”

I guess she got it.

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Traveling Family Returns

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My wife isn’t who you think she is. My wife isn’t even who I think she is.

She doesn’t seem to want a house, she’s not a townie, she has little interest in mortgages, car payments, retirement plans, and all that other stuff you trade away life-time for.

My wife had a nice apartment in Maine in her parents’ house, a nice school to send her kids to, a local job available if she ever wanted it — potential building blocks of a nice sedentary life. But she was bored, ultimately. She wanted to go to Europe; she wanted to join me.

Whether she wants to admit it, traveling is part of her identity. It’s what she’s always done, albeit often somewhat accidentally. She never set out to be a traveler or to live abroad. But one step lead to another, and here she is: many years in with me.

My wife, daughter Petra, and baby Rivka met me in Berlin three weeks ago.

I didn’t believe that she was going to get on that plane with two kids — one six years and the other 10 months old — but she really did it. I was actually joking when I made the suggestion. She called my bluff, and here she is.

As I watched her pass through the arrivals gate in Berlin with bags hanging off of her in all directions, pushing one kid in a stroller and guiding the other, I was truly impressed. I couldn’t believe that a person would do something like that. It’s not like I had a home in Berlin. My wife arrived in Europe to be with me as I traveled around on the western portions of the New Silk Road, doing research for a new book. Which is to say, she joined a person who has no clue where he’s going. Perhaps Poland, perhaps Belgrade, perhaps Turkmenistan.

My wife got pregnant with our first child on day one, for the most part. We traveled through Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East as she gestated.

After our first daughter was born, we traveled with her across the USA, through Mexico, Central America, Colombia, the Dominican Republic.

Then when Petra was around two and a half years old we moved to China, and our strategy changed: My wife would work and Petra would go to school and I would travel around by myself doing research for an array of projects. Our first base of operations was in Jiangsu province, the second was in Xiamen. It went on like that for three years. The strategy worked, and for me it presented two very different worlds that I could jump between as I fancied.

Then last June my family made a moved to the USA so my wife could have our second daughter at home. We planned for this one. Well, I tried to avoid the issue for a couple of years, but then my strategy of coincidentally being out of country during potential conception days was uncovered. I drew it out for five months before getting busted — not bad.

Rivka was born on my wife’s mom’s living room floor like her sister. The girls remained there for the next year as I made research trips to China, Central, South, and Southeast Asia, and then Europe.

When Riv was ready to move my wife packed up her bags.

We are testing if three parameters can be met as we try life on the road together again:

1) Are we all having fun?

2) Can we afford it?

3) Can I get all my work finished?

Three weeks later all three are still to be determined. We went from Berlin to Prague to Warsaw to Terespol (on the Belarus border) to Sosnowiec to Krakow to Warsaw to Belgrade, where we’ll probably be for the next month.

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On The Dhaka Cafe Attack

Dhaka Consulate Zone
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A cafe in Dhaka was attacked yesterday because it was popular with foreigners. 18 of them were killed. We all know this now.

***

When I first arrived in Dhaka in October the first thing that I was told was that an Italian guy was gunned down around the corner a few weeks before. The next thing I was told was that a Japanese guy was similarly murdered outside the city a week later. The third thing I was told was that it wasn’t ISIS.

“It was more than likely a political opponent of the government who wanted to cause problems for the current president.”

“The Japanese guy, we think it may have had something to do with land. He was investing in land and that can make people angry.”

ISIS isn’t here. All the terrorists are from Pakistan. We are a peaceful Muslim country.

I stayed in the Gulshan part of Dhaka — where the embassies are, where the rich people are, where the foreigners are. It was previously regarded as a safe zone, a compound of sorts harking back to the days of colonies. I even went to the British embassy’s social club one night for drinks. For an armed individual to come in here and pluck off a random foreigner going for an evening jog was to send a big message. It rattled the country.

After this attack, the Gulshan area was stocked with even more security forces. All the roads leading into it had road blocks / inspection points. Armed police were everywhere.

But it seemed overtly ineffectual.

The inspection points amounted to little more than a traffic nuisance. All lanes would come to a bottleneck where a kid with a shotgun would look at you as you drove through. There was no further inspection, unless he thought you had a suspicious look to you or something. As this place was full of both rich foreigners and Bangladeshis as well as the poor Bangladeshis who worked for them it was hard for me to determine what could trigger an inspection at the blockade. I watched a couple of them interested. Cars were rarely pulled over. I once saw a guy riding in on the back of a bicycle rickshaw carrying a plastic jug of gasoline stopped for questioning, but that was it.

“Do these checkpoints actually do anything besides make traffic jams?” I asked a local expat as he jostled for position as he drove his truck through one.

He laughed. “No, not really.”

For my first day in Dhaka I walked around on alert — Is that bicycle rickshaw driver who was waiting outside my guesthouse and slowly following me down the street up to something? Why is that van stopping near me? But after 15 minutes of this I shrugged and said fuck it. The place was incredibly friendly, seemed as safe as places come. I spent my days walking across it, as it was faster than taking transportation.

Even for a place that had just endured two terrorist attacks (whether by ISIS or a domestic political group), security in Bangladesh seemed lax. I was able to walk right into the country’s central bank and into the office of its governor for a meeting without a metal detector screening or even a pat down. On a domestic flight I didn’t bother taking my computer out of my bag, dumping out my water bottle, or removing my big engineer boots with the big steel buckles. When I set off the alarm I received a pat down that was hardly a formality. I looked back at the guy running the x-ray machine — he was playing on his phone, not even looking at the screen.

At that time this made me feel safe. My reasoning was that if there was an actual security threat the place would be locked down. Nobody seemed to be on edge, everything seemed business as usual and overtly benign.

All of this is now seeming more and more untrue.

But the word in Bangladesh seems to be the same as before: It wasn’t ISIS, it was Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen — a local group apparently looking to make difficulties for the current government. But for anyone looking to do business in Bangladesh or go there as a tourist, does that make it any better?

Of all the countries that I’ve so far visited along the New Silk Road, Bangladesh is one of the ones with the most promise. The country has it all, and is getting ready to be ready. But after a third attack in not even a year on foreigners — the second in the diplomat enclave — makes me wonder what the future will be. It seems as if Bangladesh can go two ways: up and international, or down and in disarray. It doesn’t seem as if the country can ride out the middle road for much longer.

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A pig on the loose with people chasing it is always funny. Everywhere. A group of men and a big bellied peasant woman gave chase. They were all laughing. A Georgian tourist tried to kick it. The pig dodged and ran right into the windowed wall of the restaurant I was watching from. His wrinkly head smashed right up against the glass by my feet. Although the next time I saw that pig the head was no longer attached. The peasant woman got him.

I ordered a coffee at the restaurant and pointed to the full barista rig. The waitress heated up a kettle and sneakliy gave me instant coffee instead. She had a bag of decent coffee open but when she thought I wasn’t looking reach under the counter and produced a jar of instant coffee and hastily heaped a spoonful into my cup.

I caught her and pointed to the barista machine and asked if I could have my coffee from there. She shook her head no. She wasn’t going to fire it up just for me.

It was the same as the draft beer I tried to order the day before. I pointed to the tap and she reached down into the deep cavity of the near empty fridge behind her and revealed a bottle. There was no keg attached to the tap because there is nobody here to drink from it.

I was in the restaurant of what I believe to be a four star hotel in Anaklia, one of Georgia’s Black Sea resorts.

It’s still the off season, with about a week or two before the crowds start coming in. I’m one of the only visitors here, and pretty much have an entire resort town to myself.

But preparations are being made for the incoming deluge. Half-finished construction projects line the streets, as hotel owners slap together new buildings and add on extra rooms to scale their potential profits. Everybody reassures me about all the people that will soon be there and of the giant electronic music fest they have there where hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe pour in.

I came here to check out the lay of the land for the location where a major New Silk Road deep sea port should be getting built and decided to stay on for an extra day or two to enjoy the beach.

Besides being a more than adequate place to sit and drink a beer while watching incredible sunsets, Anaklia has one of the most interesting development stories I’ve ever experienced. The place is the location of the idea deep sea port on the Black Sea but is also right on the border of the break away region of Abkhazia — which is pretty much an independent/ vassal state of Russia that few other countries beyond Russia acknowledge as existing. As late as 2008 Russian tanks were rolling through the streets here in Anaklia and people were being expelled from their homes en masse and being killed in fighting. The place was a war zone.

I met with the town’s director of development, who took be for a ride around in his truck to look at some development projects as well as the impending port. He was younger that I expected and seemed passionate about his work — which consisted of not only providing adequate infrastructure for a world-class port but also to provide the people who lived there with the bare basics of development: roads, water, electricity, etc. Until very recently, this place was a genuine backwater, now it’s an emerging resort town.

“Five years ago this place was nothing. There was really nothing here but some houses and cows,” I was told repeatedly.

This rapid development is partly due to being the site of GEM Fest — a massive electronic music festival that attracts the top DJs and hundreds of thousands of people from 160 something countries. The idea was hatched by the director of development and two other guys in the hotel lobby that we began our interview in. Last year was the first time they tried this, and it seemed to have been a success.

What’s interesting about this festival was that it wasn’t just something for outsiders that only the established business elite would benefit from but an event that the entire town mobilizes around. It’s organizers did a massive amount of outreach to bring the local people into providing needed infrastructure for the event. Many converted their homes into guesthouses — there are now over 400 in the region — and shops. And they profited big.

“That place last year was nothing,” the director of development pointed to the guesthouse I was staying in. “Now, the owner is building it up. Last year during GEM Fest he made 60,000 (around $30,000), now he is expanding.”

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