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Vega Alta, Puerto Rico

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VEGA ALTA, Puerto Rico- It’s a soft sand beach with deep blue waves flapping gently against it. The sun is shining, a slight breeze. There is a broken down beach bar on one side and a broken down beach bar on the other side. There is a clutch of derelict beach houses, a few luxury ones. 500 meters away is a national park with trails that wind through a small forest that hugs a rocky shoreline. I’m told that there are giant lizards over there but I never saw one. I watch some local kids have a sandball fight. One runs over my one and a half year old daughter. I’m drinking a six pack of Coronas that I bought from the shitty grocery store around the corner that seems to be the only place to get food. It seems to be the style here to blast music from your car as loud as you can — the louder you can make it the cooler you can think you are. The people here are a mix of locals, what seems to be long-term seasonal visitors from elsewhere, and those who came over from San Juan 20 minutes away.

I can’t argue with this place. Who could?

I suppose I have to admit that I’m on a beach vacation. I’m suppose I’ve been on these before, but I never called them that. When I used to focus on writing about the traveling lifestyle I used to call this work. Seriously. It seems ridiculous now. Work is going into the depths of some half-developed middle-of-nowhere and trying to figure out what’s going on. Sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico watching my kids play feels like coming in from a storm — just what a beach is supposed to feel like.

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Family Arrives In Puerto Rico

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My daughter sees me standing at the doorway at the baggage claim at the airport in San Juan. Her face lights up, she yells “Dada!,” runs for me, and jumps in my arms. A few moments later little one and a half year old Rivka wobbles out and yells “Hi dada!” She hugs my legs. At the rental car station she roves around still yelling “Hi dada!” over and over, sometimes running across the place back to me to hug my legs again.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen them last. I’ve been in Central Asia doing research for a new book. They really miss me when I’m away.

Something about this tells me that I’m at least doing something right.

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Arrival In Puerto Rico

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — I arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday. I never been here before and I’m not sure why. It’s a hundred dollar flight from New York or Boston — I figure I would have just said fuck it and hopped on a plane down here at some point before nearly reaching year 18 of my travels. I don’t need a passport to go to Puerto Rico and I can stay for as long as I want. Apparently, it’s a part of my country, a self-governing part of my country, a territory — an archaic leftover from another era.

My next book may be about territories — what are these places and why do they still exist?

I was expecting typical Latin America in Puerto Rico but I got something that actually should have been what I expected: a strange hybrid of Latin Caribbean and the USA.

I spent many years traveling between Mexico and Patagonia, tying in the Dominican Republic and Haiti every once in a while. I know this region rather well, but San Juan surprised me: it looked and felt like normal Latin America . . . without anybody in the streets.

I couldn’t shake this fact all day yesterday. The houses, the people, the music were all the same, but the street life was that of some South Florida suburb. It just didn’t exist.

I was staying in the “real city,” not Old San Juan, and the place was dead. You go to Miami…anywhere in the Latin realm of the world, and the street life is vibrant, these places are happening. You walk down the street, see interesting things, talk to people, and usually find yourself having a series of unexpected encounters. In San Juan all I found on the streets was myself, two junkies, and a screaming schizophrenic. Everybody else was in cars.

It was almost startling. The streets here didn’t seem particularly dangerous, just vacant.

I eventually wandered down to the university area, and found myself relieved — it was the Latin America that I remembered. Good action everywhere. I drank beer on a sidewalk patio and watched the scene as it rolled by. Music was blasting out of every window and doorway. College kids were drinking $1 beers in circles of friends. Local drunks leaned against the railing that served as the barrier between the bar and the street. A group of fat men were getting drunk out in front of the laundromat next door. I felt as if I returned.

It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled in Latin America.

I remember a walk that I took with my wife on the outskirts of San Cristobal in the beginning of 2012 where we made the decision to leave Mexico and go to China. We considered just staying there — life was easy, life was good — but there was something else that we wanted. A challenge, perhaps — jobs that actually paid something, a shot at a career. Mexico is excellent for 20 year olds looking to drink beer and score and for old guys … looking to drink beer and score. For anyone in between there isn’t much happening.

We left Mexico and everything changed. I began a project that got me my first book deal, I started writing for a Hong Kong newspaper. I suppose I could say that I earned my bonafides as a traveling writer. None of that had to happen. None of it was expected. None of it could have been planned for. I was in the right place at the right time working on the right project.

I wonder what would have happened if we stayed in Mexico.

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I was a real pain in the ass for my publisher, rejecting multiple covers for my next book. However, my steadfastness seems to have worked to both of our benefits, as they’ve come up with something that I feel is pretty good. Below are five options for the cover of “On the New Silk Road,” which should be out . . . someday. Please indicate in the comments below what one you think we should go with.

#1

#2

#3

#4

#5

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They are setting up the camera in a lobby of a five star hotel. They are playing with the lights, getting the levels right for the audio. They’re doing this for me. I will soon be sitting in front of that camera, those lights will soon be shining on me.

There is something about this that I like. The feeling I have when preparing to do these appearances isn’t fear, anxiety, or even nervousness, but some odd mix of appreciation, disbelief, and, yes, curiosity.

Appreciation because there are people who want to hear what I have to say — so much so that they are going to film me and put it on television. You often spend years researching and writing about something and nobody you know wants to hear you talk about it. You irritate your wife, bore your kids, find your friends rapidly changing the subject. You do these projects that you think are fascinating, ground breaking even, and it drives you mad that nobody wants to hear about them. Then you publish your book and all of a sudden everybody starts listening. Your work becomes the topic of conversation. People suddenly want to hear your stories. Crowds line up to listen to your talks. Radio personalities ask you questions. TV crews film you. You’re just saying the same things you’ve always said, the only difference is that you have been switched on. Once you understand how fine of a line it is between people not giving a shit and people caring about what you have to say, it becomes very easy to truly appreciate the latter.

Disbelief because it was such an improbable journey for me to get here. What, you want to talk to me? Seriously? Do you know that I’m just a fucking vagabond? It has been years that I’ve been doing these television and radio engagements but I still have this reaction. What kind of strange, upside down world is this that mere vagabonds are being called upon to share their analyses and narratives of major global developments with the world? The absurdity keeps me from taking these engagements — or myself — too seriously, and this takes the pressure off. I came up from the bottom; seeing how far I can get is tantamount to a game. This keeps everything fun.

Curiosity because I have no idea what’s going to happen. What are they going to ask me? What am I going to say? Am I going to kill it or bomb? I want to find out too.

Ultimately, before I sit down in that chair I know that if I do well, I do well; if I don’t do well then I have some funny, self-deprecatory story to tell. Either way, I kind of win something.

While I’m not going to say that I’m exceptional at these types of media engagements yet — I still have much to improve upon — I will say that I at least have something to work with. I feel comfortable. I like people looking at me. I enjoy walking into a room and having everybody turn their heads. I feel in control when I’m the focus of attention. I understand that this is probably one of the biggest assets that I have as a writer.

Writing is not a job for hermits.

When I got my first book deal I realized that I would need to go out and promote the book once it was published. I realized that I would need to get up on stage and sit in front of cameras. I have to admit that this inevitability left me a touch mortified. I’d never really done anything like that before. So I began studying; I began practicing. I used to watch videos of authors giving talks and being interviewed. I was amazed that nearly every single one seemed incredibly proficient at this — they all seemed comfortable, they all seemed incredibly cool. I understood that if I couldn’t find a way to do this too my days as an author would likely be numbered.

We have this vision of the writer as this loner, this awkward misanthrope sitting off in the woods or in an empty apartment somewhere. This generally isn’t true. The writer is often a person stricken with the awareness of their own inadequacy, stricken by the awareness of their own unrequited sense of grandeur. Attention is fuel in the tank.

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“Where are you going next?” I’m asked pretty much daily.

Responding to this question is usually straight forward: I just say where I’m going. However, this time doing so
didn’t feel quite so matter of fact.

I’m going to Puerto Rico. I’m going to the sunny beaches of Puerto Rico straight from the frigid tundra of Astana in the winter. As I looked around at the ice that covered everything it just felt sort of unbelievable that I would soon be walking around in shorts and sandels and playing in the waves. When I told people this I felt as though I was lying.

But it’s true. I’m on my way to San Juan. I’ll be meeting my wife, my daughters, and in laws there.  I guess you could say that I’m going on vacation.

I’m actually surprised that I was invited to go.

“Really? You really want me to go?”

I was kind of flattered, so much so that I decided to take a break from Central Asia.

***

I’m now going back to what could be called the real world. My fifth bout of New Silk Road research travels — yet another foray into the “other world” — is coming to a close. I met with and interviewed key sources in Astana, took a trip back out to the Khorgos Gateway dry port, returned to the China / Kazakhstan free trade zone and was surprised at what I found, was taught about modern Kazakhstan art by a woman who is prohibited by law from wearing underwear in public, met with the COO of the Khorgos SEZ and other friends in Almaty, was deceived in Dushanbe, accidentally spent a week partying in Bishkek, went out to Aktau and visited the port, and returned to Astana where I did some media engagements with Kazakh TV and the Astana Times as well as hung out a little more in the conspicuously empty first McDonald’s in Kazakhstan.

I just went through just six weeks with my head down running. Now I’m transitioning back to the real world — the world where I’m a dad and a husband, the world where I work out life with other people, and can’t just do anything I want to whenever I want to (well, sort of).

Transitioning between these worlds often require complete personal paradigm shifts — Edward Norton / Brad Pitt kind of shit. It’s really two diametrically opposed lifestyles that get smashed together as one regularly becomes the other, ad infinitum. When I first go out on these research trips I’m a little reluctant, heavy hearted, like an animal being released into the wild from captivity who hovers around its crate sniffing the air for a while. I say I don’t want to go. But once I’m out for a while it’s sometimes hard to go back inside.

***
I just passed through immigration here in Astana. I paused for a moment at the no u-turn sign that was stamped on the floor at the brink of nomansland. I stepped over it. I’m leaving Central Asia again, and again I feel a little heavy inside about it. I had fun here during this bout of research travels — perhaps a little too much fun.

But I should be returning to Central Asia in three weeks. Too soon to shed any tears of preemptive nostalgia.

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Too Much Fun In Central Asia

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“You’re having too much fun there,” my best friend from home commented on my recent bout of travel in Central Asia.

He was probably right.

While I have to say that I ultimately have fun everywhere I travel, this state of being runs in a higher gear in Central Asia. It’s no mystery why: I just really like the people here. I like talking with them, I like going out and doing things with them, I like drinking with them. It’s really that simple.

Sure, I like everyone, everywhere, but there is just a way that the society in Central Asia — and in the post-Soviet states in general — reacts towards foreigners that makes interacting within this sphere overtly enjoyable: they treat you like a normal human. You’re not viewed as money on legs or as having two heads here, you’re just a person — a person that the people here seem to be as much interest in talking with as you have in talking with them.

Throughout the Soviet period people and cultures were really mixed up in Central Asia. Entire villages in the Northern Caucasus were transplanted in Kazakhstan, untold numbers of people were exiled here, and millions were moved around the USSR to work on various projects and initiatives like pieces on a game board. While the individual identities of the myriad cultures of this realm remained intact, they did so under an umbrella “Soviet” identity. The lasting effect today is a unique type of cosmopolitan society that is relatively open to outsiders. Mixing this with Central Asia’s built-in sense of “nomad” hospitality, and traveling here becomes something incredibly engaging.

To put it in one blunt phrase: the people of Central Asia are accessible. My playground has many swings and slides here.

***
Central Asia is a span of the world that’s prime territory for travelers who like people. This may sound like a strange thing to say — what traveler doesn’t like people? But when you look at the places that most people tend to travel to, the preference seems to be gawking at piles of old rocks than interacting with living humans. The social accessibility of tourist towns is one tick from nilch.

As far as I know there are no real big ticket tourist sites in Central Asia. Maybe there’s some ancient Silk Road cities that have been Disney-fied by UNESCO in Uzbekistan or something, but that’s about it. This lack of big attractions seems to keep mass tourism at bay and visitors from being solely viewed as customers. I don’t believe that Central Asia is the last frontier of tourism — there is just too much nothing to see here. Hanging out in Astana with Jon from Moscow simply doesn’t hold much weight in a tourist brochure. This is a place that is about the people, not the attractions.

That said, once you really engage this place it is the full of those particular WTF?-type experiences that you travel for — i.e. the stuff you write home about. Sitting at a bar wearing a green army helmet while a scantly clad woman makes you chug a succession of flaming drinks while systematically bashing you over the head with shovel, a fire extinguisher, and an empty beer keg as everybody cheers is something I don’t believe I’ve ever had happen to me before.

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I saw something that I didn’t really remember seeing in Astana before: a McDonald’s. The place was in a prominent part of town, right at the cusp between the business / administrative district and a residential area, and was probably the most well-put-on-displayed McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.

I asked around about it. Was this here before?

It was new; they just opened it last year. At that time it was the first McDonald’s in Kazakhstan.

After being held at bay for a remarkably long time, the big international chains are now moving into Kazakhstan. Starbucks is now here, Zara has some stores, I just saw some of the shelving and supplies for what will be the first H&M in Kazakhstan in the Astana Logistics Center a month and a half ago. They are coming; but many seem a little late to the game.

By keeping the big chains out — by either not having the proper logistical infrastructure to support their supply chains or the government foiling attempts by local entrepreneurial players from bringing them in (as is rumored) — Kazakhstan’s local brands and businesses have had an opportunity to establish themselves in cities that are now the bearers of populations that are incredibly cosmopolitan, international, modern.

I would sometimes get a coffee at this McDonald’s, and one thing that I found striking about it was that it’s often a tick from being empty. I’d been there at breakfast time, lunch time, and dinner time. When it first opened there were lines extending out the door, I am told. Now, there is scarcely a trickle.

McDonald’s seems to be dealing with the same problem here in Kazakhstan that they’re facing in many markets around the world: as it turns out, their food actually tastes horrible.

“Do people in Kazakhstan like McDonald’s food?” I had to ask around.

“Not really. No. I think maybe half the people liked the food and the other half don’t like it.”

Most people who seemed to be coming into this McDonald’s seemed to be doing so solely to take their kids to the indoor play area — which makes sense in the cold of an Astana winter.

Without offering breakfast — the restaurant chain’s pinnacle menu options — without the appeal of the image that nearly took over the world in the early days of globalization, with the knowledge that their food isn’t the healthiest, McDonald’s in Kazakhstan is standing on the taste of its hamburgers and fries and ice cream alone. The empty seats seem to tell how well this is going.

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Aktau isn’t bad. It’s a city of 150,000 or so on the Caspian Sea — pretty much the only sign of development for hundreds of kilometers of coastline. This is where the deserts of Central Asia meet the sea. It’s all water if you look one way and all sand if you look the other. In this way it reminds me of the coastal stretches of the Atacama in China.

“This place is the desert. Nothing grows here,” the guy who showed me around Aktau port told me. “If you go out of town you will see camels.”

“Camels?”

“Yes, camels. They’re just walking around out there. I imagine they belong to somebody but they’re just walking around in the desert.”

“Camels are something normal for us,” a guy from Aktobe later told me.

It’s the real Silk Road out here.

***

I do this thing in airports that I’ve recently realized that I really enjoy. It’s basic, everybody does it, but I’ve kind of ritualized it. I don’t even really notice it until I’m in a situation where I can’t do it. Then I kind of mildly long for it. I just walk through the terminal from end to end slowly, just thinking about what I did in the place I’m leaving — solidifying the memories, constructing the lines of narrative, perhaps.

This morning in Aktau I can’t do that because I’m here with a friend — or, more accurately, some guy I met one morning while eating breakfast at the Victoria Hotel on the seaside. He works for a company that makes parts for drilling oil wells. He lives and works in Aktobe, but was in Aktau to service a well that his company provided a motor for.

“I was born on an oil field,” he said. “We all are here.”

His father is from Azerbaijan. His mother is from Russia. They met on an oil field. Hid brothers work in oil. He studied oil in university. Everything about this guy’s life revolved around oil.

“Why did you want to work in oil?” I asked him.

My question seemed to strike him as something strange, as though nobody has ever asked him that before.

“Well,” he began, “for one I find it interesting. It pays well. I also get to travel.”

Not bad.

I remember riding into Aktau from the airport in a taxi with a couple of lawyers who worked for Maersk — quelling things like labor disputes. I asked them why they wanted to become lawyers, and they just laughed at me.

“We don’t choose our jobs in Kazakhstan! Our parents choose for us.”

Both of their parents decided that they would be lawyers, so that’s what they did. One of them said that she wanted to be a doctor when she was young but her parents rejected it on the very accurate grounds that doctors in Kazakhstan don’t make any money. You will be a lawyer, they said, and that’s what she became.

***

The oil man that I met during breakfast the day before gave me a ride to the airport, he bought me a coffee, and he bought me breakfast. There’s no way to turn this down.

Hospitality is a funny thing. It’s a social set up where the giver is also the receiver, the receiver is also the giver. What is often misunderstood by Westerners is that in order to be a good guest you need to allow the host to provide for you — to buy your drinks, your food, etc. It’s what they want to do. To decline or to try to repay them in kind is an insult. You repay them by saying thank you — or when they come to your country you provide them with hospitality. We have to remember that they don’t only provide you with hospitality to help you but because it (apparently) makes them feel good, it bolsters their status locally, it’s what they’ve been taught that they should do. It is as much for them as it is for you.

“It was a real pleasure for me because of our hospitality. We should do that for foreigners.”

There are hospitality cultures, like in the Middle East or the Turkic countries, and there are non-hospitality cultures, like in the USA. For us, groveling over and spending money on some stranger from somewhere else is an expense and a chore. We don’t receive the full value from doing this because we don’t understand how hospitality really works or what it even is. Culturally, we’re  buffoons.

***

I came to Aktau to visit the port and corresponding SEZ for a story on Forbes and for inclusion in my upcoming book on the New Silk Road. The significance of this place is that it is the gateway for the emerging southern corridor of the Silk Road Economic Belt. This route is of particular interest because it completely bypasses Russia — and, therefore, Russia’s reactionary sanctions. Many of the products that the EU would otherwise ship to China overland is stifled by this major trade barrier, but going through Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan via Aktau opens up an entirely new frontier.

I was given what I came for in Aktau. I won’t mention the names of the people that I met there here, but they opened the place up for me.

***

I’m getting ready to board a flight to Astana. Tomorrow I go on Kazakh TV and get interviewed by the Astana Times. Talking about the New Silk Road. The next two days I will do a couple of projects around the city — something on Expo 2017.

I like Astana. However, I understand that it has no good reason for it to exist. But there is something about this that I like.

“Imagine if the capital was moved to Aktau rather than Astana,” my main source at the port kept saying.

It’s an interesting proposition. Aktau is a city on a beautiful coastline that is completely undeveloped for hundreds of kilometers in either direction. It’s a short ride over the sea to Baku or Iran. Turkmenbashi is just down the line in Turkmenistan. There are natural beaches, flat land, and an overwhelming amount of available space. It really could have been a major cosmopolitan center vitalizing the Caspian in the heart of Eurasia.

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Aktau: Where The Streets Really Have No Name

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I landed in Aktau, got in some guy’s truck that he called a taxi, and began riding into town. I pulled out my phone to track the half hour ride and get the lay of the land.

“Unnamed Road” was the label given to the highway I was traveling down.

“Stupid Google Maps,” I thought, how could this road not have a name? It’s the main highway going from the airport to the city — of course it’s called something.

But the mapping app was correct. The road didn’t have a name. None of the roads in Aktau do.

This is a city that was founded in secret — one of the Soviet Union’s infamous closed cities. At that time, it was basically a nuclear power plant, a uranium mine, and a camp for the people who worked in those two places. The city was arranged in districts and apartment complexes that were organized by number, rendering the streets which they were located on irrelevant for navigational purposes. If you wanted to go to District 9, you just went to District 9.

Apparently, this was a system that nobody found any need to update as Aktau opened up and grew into the oil producing epicenter that it is today.

So how do you find your way around a city where the streets have no name?

There’s a system to it. Rather than going to a particular road and finding an address on it, you first go to the district, called a micro-raion, and then to the apartment or commercial building, and then to the specific apartment or business you’re aiming for. So a common address would look something like “15-10-38.” The first number is the district, the second the building, and the third is the house or business.

This system works because Aktau hasn’t lost its work-camp-like set up. People still live in apartment blocks which are still arranged in well-organized clusters. From what I can tell, finding your way around here is about as easy as anywhere else. Well, for the locals anyway.

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