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Category Archives: US

Fieldwork Blog #дәптер #007

Astana, Kazakhstan 

There are few things that make me angry (besides oh-so-many-things capitalism). One of them is the decision to rename May 1st in Kazakhstan. International Workers’ Day is already completely disregarded in “official life” in the US, which made me cringe every year. But Kazakhstan, why? In 1995, while the country’s economy was still shrinking and after a much-criticized Constitutional reform, the president decided to rename and repurpose May 1st as the Day of Unity of Kazakhstan’s Peoples. While the effort can be noble, displaying, celebrating and promoting respect for Kazakhstan’s multinational state, ANY OTHER DAY could have been chosen for that. So boo for that.

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My first two weeks in Astana were extremely hectic. The spiral of meetings, which I feared could have been slow at the beginning, precipitated fast. Plus, I had the chance to go to several conferences touching upon various aspects of my dissertation and others that were outside of my remit, but still useful to develop contacts.

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An example of useless vs useful business cards collected.

There have been already 3 winters and 3 springs so far in Astana. We’ve been way below zero and peeked above 20C just to check out how fast people get rid of their heavy coats. That meant that I was constantly with a cold. Which was definitely not helped by beverages such as the psychedelic lemonade pictured below. Hopefully now, in May!!!!, we can get past this freezing winter.

Taking Kazakh classes has been productive so far. I now understand the structure of the language far better. Now it’s time to expand the vocabulary! Half of the taxi drivers, however, are generally mute (it’s very typical to have silent interactions here). While I’ve already had 3 women driving me in a taxi, something I think I had experienced only twice before in Kazakhstan. Given the amount of rides I have to take to get anywhere, especially in Astana, that’s a fraction of 1%. One ride was particularly fun: mom driving and son behind playing with his tablet, correcting his mom’s Russian and admitting in cute English that he should play less and study more to improve his English.

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A felt spread at the Eurasian National University.


Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 2

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Well, Rodriguez has made it into my daily routine. I remember his lyrics, his riffs, his pauses. It’s time to post a review of his second and last album so far, “Coming From Reality”.

There is little doubt that if “Cold Fact” didn’t make it into the US charts, there would be no game for “Coming From Reality“, which came out only one year later in 1971. Rodriguez was playing around in Midwestern bars while Jimi Hendrix was already a legend and the Beatles had already disbanded. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black and Bob Dylan was living his fame. Rodriguez was to become only a musician by night: his new album sold only few copies in the US and his record label dropped him… two weeks before Christmas, as he mentions in “Cause”, although the song was recorded months before the release and the sacking. He would move on to work in factories in pre-crisis Detroit.

“Coming From Reality” is a dark album. There are almost no cheerful lines in Rodriguez’s poetry here. Climb Up on My Music seems a call to the listener, it’s about trust, Rodriguez says: there was a girl named Christmas, / Did I tell ya she drank gold?. Not much sense, just blind trust is what Rodriguez needs from his audience. At least at a first glance. His guitar laments his way into the next track A Most Disgusting Song, which is perhaps the cleverest, reflecting on the craft and the stress of being a musician. The simplicity with which he treats his audience is reflected in the casual name-dropping (Jimmy “Bad Luck” Butts, old playboy Ralph, Mr. Flood, Linda, Tim, Tom, Martha…). The message targets the routine, the dullness, the literally disgusting never-ending present: everyone’s drinking the detergents / that cannot remove their hurts … every night it’s the same old thing / Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny. Then, oh, a sweet love song… about a lost love; I Think Of You is not a song about the break up, but tracks the nostalgic feeling that comes months, years after the end of a relationship. A psychedelic trip starts suddenly thereafter with Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour, a crazy ride, with verses that chase each other in a hectic and messy manner: Rodriguez warns to look out for the cops and the itchy trigger fingers, but no-one disagrees that happiness is free on Heikki’s suburbia bus tour ride. A lullaby-like love song turns the mood back to sad-mode: Silver Words? is about the odd feeling of having a chance with the person that made you fall in love. The violin gets introduced by the end of the song and comes back in the next track Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyle, back to the real blues, but with string instruments resounding like an orchestra. “America gains another pound / Only time will bring some people around / Idols and flags are slowly melting” – it’s always winter in Rodriguez’s calendar. To Whom It May Concern is actually addressed pretty accurately, despite the title, to those who are waiting for love. The song would thematically fit perfectly in between “Silver Words” and “I Think Of You”. Then It Started Out So Nice throws you into a magic world… of sorrow and melancholy, of course, but still magic. Again some name-dropping, this time mythical: Genji, the Ixea mountains, Orion, etc. From the sea to the skies, it was a great love, remembered with the words of somebody who knows, that love is lost. Coming from fantasy, back to reality, Halfway Up The Stairs is another song about missed opportunities, half-baked ideas, unfinished tasks. Here comes the masterpiece of the album: Cause. From his oft-cited inner city to the local factory, the working class seems to cry through Rodriguez’s voice: Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them. The album ended here with an Estonian Archangel, Molly McDonald, Willy Thompson, and Annie Johnson, the common names of common people, exceptional figures of the constant, flat present.

Three more songs were added in later editions of the album, particularly in the bootleg version distributed in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a constant feature on the radio (the few allowed tracks) and in basements. I’ll Slip Away, Can’t Get Away and Street Boy are about journeys, of course. In the first track, Rodriguez communicates the uneasiness of conformity and the inability to continue a relationship, be it a sentimental or a political one: Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / Cause I’m losing who I really am / And I’m not choosing to be like them. In the second song, Rodriguez explains his origins with a touch of color: Born in the troubled city / In Rock and Roll, USA / In the shadow of the tallest building / I vowed I would break away, but he can’t. Then, my personal favorite, Street Boy, which speaks of a nomadic and innocent life, perhaps naive. The singer gives some grown-up advice to the boy, but acknowledges his need to get away and find himself. The last word is a warning though: you’ll never find or ever meet / Any street boy who’s ever beat the streets.

This concludes my two-part praise of my new favorite musician and songwriter. Click here for the first part and here for more guesses on the meanings of his lyrics.

Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 1

Croton-On-Hudson, NY

I met Rodriguez only three weeks ago, on a lazy post-graduation morning. It shattered my views on American ballads and protest songs in one, jaw-dropping experience. I wanted to watch the documentary Searching for Sugarman for a year, since I saw the poster and the mysterious aura around it in the streets of Tallinn. Only three months ago, I was concentrating on Viktor Tsoy’s Russian lyrics, which are bare-boned and melancholic. Then Rodriguez blew my mind.

Rodriguez, Sixto, Jesus, whatever his name, is better than Bob Dylan, better than Johnny Cash. Who’s Neil Young? Why is Paul Simon not showing up, overshadowing this little known songwriter? How does a blue-collar working man-turned musician (and/or the other way around) get to #1 in someone’s 2014 ranking by releasing only two albums in 1970 and 1971?

The quick answer is: I have no idea, but it did.

I saw the documentary, almost in tears for both the story and the depth of the lyrics in his songs, masterpieces of songwriting. I’m of course not a musician or a songwriter, but my brain and my ears keep exchanging high-fives. Every word is spelled out as if it was the last one coming out of Rodriguez’s mouth. Every song has a rhythm that fits the verses, which are built carefully, like a domino structure: once you hit play, something beautiful unravels. Here’s my take on “Cold Fact“, released by Sussex in March 1970 in the United States, which sold only a few thousand copies until success hit back in the 90s and after the release of the documentary. Thirty minutes of awesomeness buried deep in radio station archives, until better PR got it to the masses.

The repetitiveness of Sugar Man closely resembles the addict hailing the pusher for more. This song is the formal entrance by Rodriguez into your veins. Only Good For Conversation brings you to a harsher sound of protest towards some customary behaviors, more to come, undoubtedly. Crucify Your Mind is the masterpiece: Was it a huntsman or a player / That made you pay the cost / That now assumes relaxed positions / And prostitutes your loss? Again, the entrance punches you at each pause. Then a long title that would never make it through radios, charts, or memories This Is Not A Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues, a protest song that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy In New York only because it has a better weather-related verse: Public gets irate but forget the vote date / Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining […] I opened the window to listen to the news / But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues – try to get more contemporary than that. Hate Street Dialogue is against the state’s monopoly on the use of violence against its own citizens: A dime, a dollar they’re all the same / When a man comes to bust your game. / The turnkey comes, his face a grin / Locks the cell I’m in again. There’s one or two things Johnny Cash could learn from Rodriguez’s crude images here. Thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, that’s the first verse of Forget It, about love that has worn out. No begging, like to the local sugar man, just forget it. Inner City Blues is another angry song which repeats the album title Cold Fact over and over, while building clever braids with lyrics that could make sense even if you listened only to one every two verses. Will it ever all be straight / I doubt it, says Rodriguez, while making again Christian references. Then comes the bass. The supporting band for his first concert in South Africa played the riff for minutes, while the crowd was cheering  their idol, before he could finally open the song with the now-famous verse I WonderI wonder about the love you can’t find / And I wonder about the loneliness that’s mine – an uneasy song, less lyric-focused but an incredibly catchy tune. Like Janis is again a great ballad with snappy and clever verses that are better served with the music. A bit more disturbing to the ear is Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme) is a surprising blues track with an actual nursery rhyme within. Help your kids to dream with a Biblical tale about hate, says Rodriguez. Once more, a protest song follows. Rich Folks’ Hoax has an ironic take on the class-system: Rich folks have the same jokes / And they park in basic places. Jane S. Piddy is a weird song that will be repeated in its concept in the second album. Among incredibly poetic lyrics, random name-dropping happens. Who are all these people, nobody knows and nobody cares, I guess that’s the message.

I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears
The wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears
Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers

If this has not been enough for you, then don’t bother to wait for the next post, which will take on Rodriguez’s second and last (so far) studio album.

Gassy Friends

Tallinn, Estonia

There should be more “energy” in this blog. Here we look at how energy builds feeble friendships and goes against what in International Relations and everyday media seems to be non-controversial.

Iran has very few friends in the international community. US embargo and sanctions have accomplished the slowdown of foreign economic activity in the country. The Seattle Times summarized it all in early 2010:

German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG said last week that it will stop doing business in Iran by the middle of 2010. European banks such as Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, UBS AG and Credit Suisse Group have also pulled out of Iran.

In 2010 the Italian ENI was going to be the last big business to leave Iran, only to come back later and announce that their contracts are not covered by the embargo – something that the US has not confirmed. Recently, ENI confirmed the phasing-out of business in Iran once the costs of the current ones are recovered. Given that Iran was one of the gems that ENI was proud of having found during the years of Enrico Mattei, it will be a pretty big loss for the Italian company in general.

This background is just for perspective. Meanwhile, however, non-Western energy is playing a big role in the region, overcoming the obstacles of international sanctions, embargoes and tense relations. With great pride, Armenia and Iran are linked by a gas pipeline since 2008. At the same time, a few kilometers to the East, another gas pipeline feeds the Azeri enclave of Nakhchivan, through swaps between Teheran and Baku. Azerbaijan is not able to send gas via pipeline across Armenia to its citizens in Nakhchivan, so it gets Iranian gas and is paid back with Azeri gas going into the northern and populous regions of Iran. This web of relations could seem silly in a market-driven environment, where the path of pipelines would look more straight and there would be no need to circumvent sensitive regions. But in the heart of the Middle East, reality is more complicated. Turkmenistan swaps its gas as well with Southern Iran, but quantities are not disclosed.

But then you look at Turkey and you scratch your head. Ankara, now under increasing pressures from the population, is the biggest client of Iranian gas (10 bcm). But wait, isn’t Turkey part of NATO? Isn’t NATO… yes, all those consequential questions are legitimate and justified. And just as we care nothing about human rights in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan (just to mention the countries cited here, with which we constantly entertain fruitful relations), the regional gas balance cares little about Western concerns about the Iranian economy. Sanctions and embargoes are precisely intended to weaken the economic stability of an oil and gas potential exporter (although the internal problem in the energy mix are still huge). Therefore, energy trade, or the lack of it, should be the first political tool to use against Iran. By now, the entirety of the West does it. In the region, however, the need for natural gas and of lucrative contracts trumps the political pressures from Washington (and Brussels).

Political friends or enemies, when it comes to business, let’s put a brown bag on our faces and do it. The Western pull out from Iran will certainly contribute to our ignorance of the entire region and foster an antagonistic discourse based on what we think, we hope, we wish was going on “over there”. It’s lucky that there’s people around that write good stuff and open our eyes – in this case on natural gas issues.


Glasgow, UK 

‘Twas a very low-profile end of the year, but here we are again. After some vacation and without much time to waste, here’s a little story of the facts involving two Italian soldiers arrested last year in India for having shot 2 fishermen dead. For my Italian friends, there is a non-translated, non-abridged version of the story by Giap here (author: Matteo Miavaldi)

Listening to the Italian media is excruciating. This sentence can be – and is – used by anyone living in Italy and turning on the TV.

Reading the Italian papers is a waste of time. This sentence can be – and is – used by anyone who speaks Italian and has access to newspapers, either in print or online.

Verba volant, scripta manent. Latins knew how to depict feelings in one sentence: the TV brainwashes you and you don’t even realize it, while you can note down all mistakes a newspaper prints on the page. But what’s so special about the Italian media? More than its audience, it is racist and bigot to a disproportionate extent. The case of the two Italian soldiers who allegedly shot dead 2 Indian fishermen while “protecting” an Italian tanker nearby the Indian coast is a case in point. After the whole Christmas merry-go-round of fascist utterings by several Italian politicians, the time was ripe for a rebuttal from honest people who actually know the facts and live where they have occurred. It just takes a little reading and a pinch of surfing the web to get the perfect recipe of information on this case. Serving their political agenda, Italian newspapers and newsreels have built a farce in order to purport a different reality to their customers.

“It’s not fair that our soldiers are kept in prison by those barbarians”. BOOM! Racism, supremacism, imperialism, and fascism all in one go. This was never said by the news, but is what the news have generated within the numb brains of many Italians. Here’s what happened, according to the article – and reality.

On February 15, 2012 the Italian tanker “Enrica Lexie” (EL) is sailing not far from the coast of Kerala, in South-Western India, in its journey to Egypt. 34 people are on board. Among them, 6 “Marò” (Italian marines) from the Venetian “Reggimento San Marco” whose duty was to protect the boat from pirate attacks, which proved to be a concrete risk along the route that brought them close to the waters of East Africa. Not far from there, an Indian fishing boat “St. Antony” [sic] has 11 people on board. At around 4.30 p.m., the incident. EL thinks it’s under a pirate attack and the Marò shoot towards the “St. Antony”, killing Ajesh Pinky (25) and Selestian Valentine (45). The “St. Antony” reports to the coastal guard of the Kollam district, who immediately contacts the EL, asking if it were involved in a pirate attack. EL’s confirmation leads the coastal guard to ask the Italian boat to approach the port of Kochi. The Italian Navy commands to the EL’s captain Umberto Vitelli not to sail to the port and not to let the Italian soldiers on Indian soil. The captain, who’s not in the army but a private citizen, has to respond to the shipowner first and so he concedes to the requests of the Indian authorities. The same night, the victims’ bodies are examined with an autopsy. Two days after, they are buried. On the 19th, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, two among the Marò, are arrested upon charges of murder. The Tribunal of Kollam sentences that the two Italian soldiers be kept in custody at the guesthouse of the CISF (Central Industrial Security Force), Indian police corps. This detail is important, because they are not kept in a regular prison.

The Italian news and the Italian people have been vomiting racist crap on the issue for almost a year now, but the amount of bullshit intensified last Christmas, when the two Marò had been granted a special permit to visit their families in Italy, while they wait for a trial. An exceptional case for people who are accused of murder. Especially given that, without the consent of the Indian court, the families of the victims were “presented with” a donation of 10 million rupees (around $200.000) on a cheque signed by the Italian government. On top of this slimy conduct, a grotesque scene took place when Rome lobbied their neighbors in the Vatican to get a local Catholic priest to “open a spiritual channel” in connection with the families, both Catholic. The Indian authorities were unhappy of this attitude, to say the least.

There are three questions that leave a bitter taste to those who care:

1) How is it possible, in the XXI Century, to think you can resolve international questions with bribes and slimy practices just because Italy is dealing with India (ppfft. they don’t even have laws down there!)

2) How can Italians negate their inherent racism when they approach a foreign country in such manner, and how can we stand the presence of so many fascists (many among them are actually in Parliament or in Government)?

3) Why, why on Earth, do Italian soldiers “protect” private tankers abroad? The law that allowed this practice was signed under the usual Parliamentary silence. Apparently, corporations in Italy are more important than people. Suck it, Colbert!

The Infinity Loop Trip – Part Two

Oakland, CA

The Infinity Looper that has been around hoodoos is the happiest person on Earth. A wise departure from such wonders of nature would be in the afternoon, headed towards the border between Utah and Arizona. Your next goal is to visit Antelope Canyon, a few miles off of Page, AZ. However, the mighty Lake Powell and the beautiful tiny Navajo canyon push prices for a room to the roof. So, why not make your journey cheaper and more diverse by sleeping close by? Kanab, UT – or “Little Hollywood” as the city prefers to be known – is a wise decision, with very good food, a nice atmosphere, and a film environment.

One shot in the Antelope Canyon

Wake up early and take into account the time difference between Utah and Arizona, which happens for the summer half of the year. If your tour of Antelope Canyon is booked already with the companies in town, then meet them and enjoy your ride on the dunes. If you happen to be there without a booking, go meet the Navajo huts nearest to the entrance of the canyon. They are very nice, welcoming, and accommodating; they’ll make sure you get a spot to see the marvelous canyon. Best timing: around noon. Second best: around 9 am. Take many pictures, making sure you don’t dry up all the juice in the battery, because it’s time for the Grand Canyon! On the road to Flagstaff (US-89), you can detour on the smaller AZ-64 which will bring you at the heart of the Grand Canyon. You’ve seen the movies, you’ve seen the pictures. Well, now you’re in it. Once you’re done with the sublime views, take your car down to I-40, be it Williams or Flagstaff.

As hazardous as you wish

The best three days of your life just passed, Infinity Looper. Now you’re California bound. Across the desert again, you can choose to ride on the I-40 or to take the Historic Route 66. A combination of the two, with a few detours will be the best for the sake of time and mileage. Use your gas station breaks to dive into the small towns along the 66 and enjoy the views. Approaching the border with California, you’ll be asked to declare whether or not you are carrying animals or plants, in which case you might expect inspection. Moreover, you can witness the typical NIMBY principle: it doesn’t happen often to read a sign that says “Hazardous Waste Permitted”! And you can find it just across the border. It’s California, but it’s still basically the desert that covers the huge plains of Nevada and Arizona as well.

You are back to the Central Valley, Bakersfield or just around there, and you’re only left with a small leg of the trip northbound. The choice betwen the boring I-5, the interesting US-101, or the gorgeous CA-1 is pretty straightforward. So spin your steering wheel across the hills between the Central Valley and San Luis Obispo, full of cows and oil rigs. At some point you will be able to see Morro Bay and its rock – probably all covered in the typical Pacific fog. Seagulls, crows, and squirrels welcome you to ocean side of California, from where you should take a slow drive north. The drive is usually slow for one reason: the only cars on CA-1 are there for tourism, and the many scenic turnouts force you to drive slowly in order to avoid pushing your fellow visitors off the cliff.

Elephant Seals arguing

One mandatory stop is Piedras Blancas, a small beach where elephant seals hang out seasonally. With their disproportionate trunk, they snore on the sand creating big puffs, their huge bodies jerk around in search for the best pillow of fat (usually another seal), and they throw sand on their back. Only slightly annoyed by the laughs of the public, elephant seals own Piedras Blancas: this is not a zoo or a reserve. Theirs is the beach, theirs the ocean. Whil driving and taking pictures, you will realize that Cambria is one of the last bits of human settlement before Carmel. So make sure your tank is full of gas and drive by the trees, rocks, and foamy waves of the Ventana Wilderness. In Carmel, you can decide to go back to the US-101 (for the first time in 200 miles or more) or to continue to Monterey. Monterey is a nice place for a lazy afternoon, it displays a few beautiful sand dunes just in its outskirts and it hosts a very interesting aquarium. Moreover, it was the setting and the inspiration for some of John Steinbeck’s writings (Cannery Row, chiefly).

When you are done dreaming of the ocean, of times long gone, and of the wilderness you just emerged from, drive up to San Jose and pick your final destination based on your hotel room or your home in San Francisco or the East Bay. The trip has ended, it has changed your life, and it has shown you the true essence of the West. The Loop might be over, but memories stay forever.

*Let it rain cheese*

The Infinity Loop Trip – Part One

Oakland, CA

Once your checklist is has been completed, you are ready to start your Infinity Loop Trip. For a successful-yet-stressful completion, you need at least 5 days. Any day added to the trip would improve your traveling standards and allow you to see more. Here, I describe a weeklong ideal trip. You can take out options as necessary, but the goal is to complete the loop! Impossible to avoid: driving, heat, other cars, and eating out. Ready?

The optimal start is from the San Francisco Bay Area. Whoever hasn’t yet explored it, should allocate a few days to it. But if you’re just going on the Infinity Loop, then you’d better start being touristy and go check out the Golden Gate Bridge. Never did it by car? Drive northbound, and then take the San Rafael/Richmond Bridge to the East Bay. You will pass through Marin County, which has astonishing views of the Bay, with all the fog and the romanticism you can imagine. Once in the East Bay, whether you are in Richmond, Berkeley, or Oakland, take the I-580 (all numbers without specification are highways) south-east past Livermore, it will go around Tracy and merge into I-5 south, Bakersfield-bound. The drive is so interesting that you will remember nothing of it. But it’s really the fastest way to get to the first stop: Oil-land.

rigs and refineries

Whether you sleep in Lost Hills, Buttonwillow, or Bako, don’t miss the chance to take a trip to Oildale, a well marked area of Bakersfield where the Kern River Basin hosts thousands of oil rigs and dozens of refineries to extract and process crude from the 5th largest oil patch in North America. Despite what everyone I met says, Bakersfield is not so bad as an American town. It’s ample, it has many conglo-malls, it has a farm+oil culture, and has themed neighborhoods. It’s basically like LA with real people and real jobs (zing!). The whole meth-land and culture-less vibe did not show up to me as a visitor. After your morning wandering in Bakersfield, get your wheels to Death Valley: a good and humane way of doing it is either hella early in the morning, or during peak hour, provided you have an air conditioned car. If you choose the latter, then you will get to the visitor center 4 hours after leaving Bakersfield, so to have time to jump around.

Death Valley – desert and colored rocks

Death Valley has a very useful visitor center at Furnace Creek, where you should pay the park fee and get tips from the rangers. It’s possible to drive everywhere there, because they don’t imagine sane people to hike in hell. So plan a tour with the map, go down to Zabriskie Point, to the Artist Palette, and try to get to Badwater Basin (the salt plain) as late in the day as possible, so that the sun doesn’t kill you and make a salt sculpture out of you. The bare might of Death Valley is incredible everywhere you go in the “park”. Outside of Death Valley, you can sleep in Nevada, the first town being Beatty. [Ad Alert] It was very funny and comfy to sleep in the Atomic Inn motel, which is themed after the Cold War atomic craze due to the nearby nuclear test station. Also nearby is the ghost town of Rhyolite, a 20th century village that was abandoned after the coal mine was emptied. It features, a school, a glass-house, a market, a union building, a mansion, a bank, and a casino. Speaking of casinos, after your night in Beatty, you might as well continue driving towards Las Vegas, see their fake world full of fat, bling, and smog. Vegas shouldn’t take more than three hours, if you’re not going to bet or get married. So get out of there and take I-15 north-east towards St. George, Utah.

Majestic hoodoos!

A big-big billboard welcomes you to Utah, overshadowed by an even bigger billboard that suggests you to stop at Cracker Barrel to eat. Do so. Get gas and eat. Then a few choices open: you can either go to Zion National Park (you can’t decide to just drive-through because you’d have to pay the park fee anyways) first, or you can zoom past it and get to Bryce Canyon, the most beautiful place on Earth. Sleep in Panguitch or Beaver or Parowan. It doesn’t really matter, because you have to spend a couple of days strolling through the hoodoos, watching sunrises and sunsets in the orange and green beauty created by nature. You don’t do that, you are not my friend, you should stop reading this blog, you might as well carve your eyes out of their sockets and go live in a dark world. You’re definitely not a Infinite Looper.

If you do so, then sit back and contemplate the beauty of nature and plan your trip to the border between Utah and Arizona. Because coming up in the next blog post is Antelope Canyon! (and the second half of the trip).

The Infinity Loop Setup

Oakland, CA

These cloudy and rainy summer days leave me with less outdoorsy time. So here’s the setup for the Infinity Loop. The trip itself looks like the mathematical symbol, but we all know that there isn’t such thing as an infinite vacation. So let’s look at the necessary toolkit for the Infinity Looper.

A flock of Swedish people crossed my East Bay path around the 4th of July break. They came to the US to meet with common friends and to explore the West. So they rented a car and after spending a few days around Oakland and San Francisco, they disappeared in canyonland. Posting every day Instagram pictures of the wonderous places they came across. I was sort of jealous of their mileage, because I too had the intention of exploring the pre-Californian West. My desire was to drive all the way to Texas, so as to catch up with an old friend and see what’s the deal with the South West. But it would have taken almost one day to drive one way, without really stopping. And flying was not that cheap either. So plans switched for a shorter trip, that we later discovered almost mirrored the one undertaken by the Swedes, who even gave us a few tips. Here, I add some additional preparational tips.

1) Book an Antelope Canyon tour – and buy a decent/huge/amazing camera

This is perhaps to be done before you get to the United States (what? you’re a citizen? you were born in this country? well, do so anyways, because there’s a long line already there). The best time to see the tricks of the light that the wind-and-rain-shaped canyon displays are around noon. Those times are fully booked weeks in advance with tour companies in Page, AZ. However, we proceeded to the Navajo tour service just off the highway and got a very nice welcoming. I’m sure that they would accomodate you in case you were a small group (2-3). Our tour started at 8.45, when it was already 90F outside, and thanks to a timezone mistake (Arizona has not adopted daylight saving!), our tour was very tranquil and let us freely wander in the meanders of the rocks.

The canyon itself, however, is not stunning. It’s very pleasant to see how nature decided to shape those sandy rocks, but this happens in many other places. If you have access to a very good camera, your pictures will capture the true reflections that human eyes can’t see. This is the reason why there are special photography tours and the canyon itself was brought to the market by a photographer, to the disappointment of the Native groups, who had now to babysit all kinds of tourists – even those who carved their names in the walls of the canyon. In sum, you forget to bring a camera, you won’t understand Antelope Canyon.

2) Bring sunscreen – and water

I know, you’re dark enough that UV-radiation can’t break your natural shield. But if you bring sunscreen in your bag, it won’t hurt. If you undertake the Infinity Loop in the summer, you will be sweating all the way. Temperatures don’t fall under 75 degrees Farenheit until you get back to the Bay Area. A hat for your precious head and some pre-wilting cream for your soft skin are a must. Away from the sea/ocean, there is no sea-borne wind that cools off your body heat. The breeze is hot, especially in open plains. Without an overabundant stock of water – which quickly becomes flavorless soup – you will probably evaporate before you get to Nevada.

3) Map, smartphones, rough ideas – do you know where are you going?

Impro-traveling is awesome. However, having a clue of how long it takes to drive from one place to the other, knowing what to do when stuck without stamina in the middle of nowhere, understanding correctly the highway signs that announce: “Last Service for the next XX miles” are all details that will ensure that your trip doesn’t go awry. The sentence: “We could try to get there and see this, and if we can’t we’ll just stop there and go to this thing instead” should be uttered at least once a day.

4) Don’t be a snot and try motels – sleep in America, not in a standard room

Sleeping in flavorless luxurious rooms with silent AC is not for Infinity Loopers. We prefer stopping at random villages that host less than 10k people and asking for a motel room. Granted, you will find one bug, at the very least, and the TV is old-fashioned (when you see signs for “Color TV” it’s a trademark for two-generation-old technology). Even Motel6 with their überkitsch bed cover are distinguished from standard, clean, and aseptic sleep wards.

5) Bring cash – but don’t tell burglars

At some point, around the loop, you’ll be in need for cash (paying national parks, tours, dining in cash-only places, giving tips…). And your bank, even if you have an American bank account, will not be there for you. In Utah, as I understand, Zion Bank is the substitute for any Bank of America, Chase or Wells Fargo spotted everywhere else. Of course, keep your belongings with you. But stop being suspicious of everyone you see, you’ve left the big city and you’re among humans now.

6) Burn CDs, record cassettes, plug (and charge) your mp3 player! – entering radio-boredom country

Bible stations start in the Central Valley in California and probably only end in New York, if you’re traveling east. There is also an odd preponderance of Spanish-speaking stations in the core of California (the ratio to English is 75:25), which does not provide for enough commercial variety – somebody tell me why there are so few foreign songs played in this monolinguist America. All in all, there are also many hours of driving with little phone and radio reception, especially in the Death Valley area and in the Nevada/Utah/Arizona deserts. So having a long conversation is good, singing along your favorite tunes is still good, while the shotgun-reading-a-book scenario sucks for the driver, left alone in the big nothing. Uh, and don’t even consider the driver-reading-a-book scenario: you really want to avoid having a bored shotgun.

Next up: Infinity Loop – The trip!

Branding America – The Infinity Loop

Oakland, CA

A long trip made me discover the proper West. Canyons, deserts, horses, and all that jazz – incidentally, very little jazz – were stunning for me and my travel companion, who had seen most of that already. Be sure that the American continent can surprise you very often. With a little over 5 days for the trip and a car, we planned a trip that would end where it started, a loop. We decided, all without a real plan or a schedule, to take different roads on our way East and on our trip back to the Bay Area. We wanted to go to Utah to see canyons and parks, to the Death Valley, maybe see a ghost town in the way, see the tricks of the light in Antelope Canyon (Arizona), and whatever else happened was to be taken with a smile. So we did, planning each step 8-to-12 hours in advance, abiding by the car’s overheating caprices, getting lost a few times without reception for the only crappy smartphone we carried.

don’t try it at home

Once we got back home, I tried to get a ballpark number for the hundreds of miles we drove (22-ish, apparently) using GoogleMaps and I noticed a curious coincidence. The route we drew on the map was similar to the mathematical symbol for infinity. From Oakland down to Bakersfield on the I-5; then North-East bound towards Death Valley, then South-East again through Vegas on the I-15, which then goes NE again. The tour around the canyons in Utah and Arizona makes it easy for a turn southwards. We ended in Flagstaff, where we met with highway 40, which runs E-W parallel to the Historical Route 66.

Back to California. After having passed through border control (!), the city of Barstow makes I-15 and I-40 meet and marks the intersection of the loop. The route back overlaps with the initial one up to Bakersfield and then turns into a fun drive through desert hills full of cows and lonely oil rigs. Only 3 hours later, the driver can finally relax and follow signs for Morro Bay, just outside San Luis Obispo. Foggy or sunny, the CA-1 is a pretty scenic route that runs N-S along the coast. The part between Cambria and Carmel has a green addition to the blue ocean thanks to the vast natural park where one should stop if fancying a trip to Big Sur. CA-1 climbs up the San Francisco peninsula, where we didn’t want to end up, especially due to the dark hour and the need for sleep. So, we switched at San Jose and went North to our beloved East Bay.

see what we did there?

Facebook pictures, small talk with friends, and funny intuitions made “a thing” of the fortuitous shape of the trip. Many friends suggested to brand the route as a landmark of any trip to the United States. I quote just one example:

“…just post a paper signs a couple times along the way that says things like ‘Welcome to the Infinity Loop’, ‘You’re 100 miles into the Infinity Loop’, ‘You’re leaving the Infinity Loop. Or are you?’ It’ll catch on!”

While it is hilarious that so many people, included the trippers, came up with a marketing idea for a trip, I would like to jot in this blog a few landmarks one should check out when planning or randomly embarking on The Infinity Loop. Yep, because that’s what a hipster with too much time on his hands would do if he had just devised a creative and original way to set a kool activity as a new fad. All of these conversation-starters at some point bottleneck, just like Friday traffic, be it due to ageing or to cultural barriers.

Meanwhile, as I transform into a hipster for a week, I’m going to re-read my blog (because I’m the center of the universe, duh!) while I hide from the sun.

Education in Motion

on BART, between SFO and Oakland.

During the past year and a half I’ve been looking for something to do with my life – and not only mine – after graduating from my Master degree in Italy. Willing to keep studying and having enjoyed the US research environment, I decided to try applying – again – for a PhD program here. However, my previous and recent experience with the standard way of assessing applications, left me with a sour taste, again.

During my NEET (not in education, employment, or training) period, I kept enjoying the beauty of studying through libraries, where I entered thanks to my old IDs. It sure feels good to be involved in reading academic texts without the pressure of the exam. I had a project in my sleeve, so I just explored more and more the world of energy and tried to gain knowledge in fields where I lacked one. Freedom to read also gave me the possibility of reading novels and more political texts. Meanwhile, I struggled to earn a minimum for my subsistence, which I barely managed in such a bureaucratized world.

I concentrated my interest in a few projects that allowed me to be eclectic in my future path: the issue of hydrocarbons in the Arctic, the Bulgarian nuclear energy sector, the struggle for power and gas between the Kremlin and Gazprom, and the relevance of energy in diplomatic cooperation in the Caspian region. These might sound boring to many, but to me they spark interest and excitement. They are also deeply rooted in recent history, but they keep their impact in contemporary daily news. As I sit through conferences more and more frequently, I realize that what’s intriguing to some could be irrelevant to others.

Without much illusion of succeeding, thanks to the last drop of self-esteem that was left in me, I found the energy to apply for a very interesting Erasmus Mundus program. Erasmus Mundus was recently set up to link “Erasmus” countries – that have their university systems already interconnected through student, staff, and faculty exchanges – and third countries in the extended neighborhood of Europe, such as the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc. The program to which I submitted my application was a new one, coordinated by the University of Glasgow: the International Master in Russian and Central and Eastern European Studies (IMRCEES). The program had already existed for a few years, but this was the first year that the consortium obtained EU funds for it. Glasgow is in fact teamed up with a few other institutions from Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Finland, and Kazakhstan. As soon as I read Kazakhstan I became interested. I laid out my plan and submitted the many documents needed for the contextual application to the program and to the scholarship. A couple of months later, when my expectations for further education had vanished, I received a letter that confirmed my admission to the program. I shook my head: I had to change plans again, but this time it would have been more fun!

So I packed my luggage and tried my best to give and get a Glasgow impression by participating in the annual conference of my future department. I went there during my crazy May, just before my trip back to the US, on which I embarked with a very different motivation compared to the previous ones. This is my last stay in this beautiful and strange country for a while and I am going to use it as a trampoline for my next English-language adventure.

My first stop will be Scotland in September. There I will spend one academic year, trying to learn Russian one more time, carefully engaging with my professors on matters that my experience has told me a lot about, and enjoying the Tropical weather. One of the previous resolutions is clearly false, I’ll let you guess which one while I go to the store to buy a raincoat.

The next summer is going to be full of travels and surprises, as my plan is to go to Azerbaijan for research, but I might have to stop in Estonia first, for additional academic reasons. Anyway it goes, the 2013 summer term will be short, as I will continue my eastbound ride to Kazakhstan, to the former and prospective capital city of Almaty, which is supposed to re-gain its status in 2017. I will spend another academic year there before completing yet another thesis, in order to gain yet another Master degree. What will this lead to? There’s no use in asking, as my future keeps changing weekly.