Eradicating Malaria while Buddhist

Here is an anecdote from my first book, Common Sense and Whiskey, about a stay in Thimpu, the capital of the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan:

“Stray dogs (I think about eight billion) gave a free, full-throated concert most nights. Strays are the bane of Bhutan, just like in Kathmandu and Rangoon and Tahiti.

Being Buddhist, the Bhutanese have a little problem. They can’t kill the strays, can’t even spay them. That would be taking a life. But they can appoint Indian Hindus as dog catchers, and have them kill dogs on the pretense of rabies or rash.”

And here is a story from the BBC about another Buddhist conundrum, the problem of wiping out malaria in a land where “killing any life form, even a disease-carrying mosquito,” is not okay. A quote:

“One interesting challenge in Bhutan was the Buddhist aversion, in this deeply religious country, to killing any life form, even a disease-carrying mosquito. Thus the officials spraying buildings with insecticide had to reframe this practice. Rinzin Namgay, Bhutan’s first entomologist, laughs when he remembers that they would tell anxious homeowners during IRS: ‘We’re just spraying the house. If a mosquito wants to commit suicide by coming in, let it.’”

Flying Royally

Here’s is a reprise of a story I filed after a flight out of Bangkok a few years back, destination, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. If you like, check out several more photos like this one, of a rock slide that impeded our progress upcountry for a time, in the Bhutan Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

On the flight in, we traveled in august company, as you will read, here:

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.

Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.

We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.

The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.

HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3, there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.

HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.

HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle.

In Bhutanese culture it is customary to cover the mouth and say meshu meshu, demurring once or twice before accepting when offered food. It appears to be protocol, or at least respectful, to cover ones mouth when addressing HRH, too. The crew does so while serving the food and does a little kowtow.

HRH goes vegetarian this morning so I decide to eat like a queen and have the same: We start with standard plastic-wrapped assorted fruit on a banana leaf, coffee & cream, a wrapped Matterhorn Suisse cheese, bread from a basket with a pat of “Allowrie” butter. The main dish HRH and I enjoy is a fiery hot tofu, fungus, rice and Chinese cabbage. She gets extra chilli sauce from a silver cup, we get it in a tiny plastic pre-dispensed tub. The service concludes with four Imperial brand “Rosy” crackers, panna cotta and two chocolates.

After the food service HRH dives into the duty free magazine, first and not surprisingly stopping in the perfume section, then checking out the sunglasses. HRE continues sleeping as we fly up over Burmese ridges, or Bangladeshi, I don’t know, all of them barren of human development.

This Airbus A 319 must be old. The seat back pockets snap on and off. Not a modern look. One side of the seat back pocket behind HRH and in front of me just hangs there, unsnapped.

Coffee and tea are served in Drukair china and the napkins are linen, with the Drukair logo.

HRH buys a duty free bottle of Lancome perfume and a Bulgari perfume suspected to be Omnia Amethyste EDT from the Burgari Women Collection, and pays in cash in crisp, new Thai Baht. HRE has to wake up for all this reaching across, which is complicated by the crew having to fold their hands over their mouths while bagging up and delivering the goods.

During this period we learn HRH has a deep, raspy, smoker’s voice. In all the commotion HRE makes for the air vent above his head and apparently thinks he might have a go at some duty free himself, opening up the magazine. Finally he declines but now that he’s awake, he elects to have breakfast, making straight for the panna cotta. As time goes on HRE presents as an engaged and expressive fellow in a tight mustache.

Alas, and after all this, I learn that HRH is not a queen, or queen mother (or, in the case of Bhutan, where four sisters were married to the previous king, a queen mother’s sister). I inquire up in the galley.

Is HRH a wife of the fourth king?

No, the cabin crew tell me, she’s an Auntie of the 4th king.

(The reigning, fifth king, is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son in 2006.)

Auntie has a big black handbag with two gold handles and tons of rings on her fingers. HRE still sleeps as after the breakfast service HRH’s little standard issue airline pillow falls between her armrest and the wall and onto my camera bag. Unsure of the protocol surrounding Royal Pillows, I decide I’d better not shove it back up there, so I keep the royal pillow next to my own.

After a time HRH starts rooting around looking for it so I gingerly offer it up and get a smile, nod and Royal Thank You.

I’ve done all I can here. My day is done.

Mezhyhirya, Viktor Yanukovych’s Little Project, Part 1

Here is the home of the disgraced former ruler of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, which he called Межигір’я, approximately “Mezhyhyria,” translated as something like “between the hills.” The Mezhyhyria estate grew from a collection of dachas outside Kyiv used by government officials. After President Yanukovych was run out of town, fleeing to Russia during a popular uprising in February 2014, the common folk had a look inside. We had a look for ourselves last month, and here are a few photos, in the first of probably three or four photo essays.

Click the photos for larger versions at EarthPhotos.com.

The gentleman who took us to Mezhyhirya said Yanukovych wasn’t a sportsman, but fancied himself one. Still, who couldn’t use a few lanes in the basement?

Yanukovych was not a race car driver, but somebody painted him as one.

Nor was he a boxer, but this room was perhaps useful for his bodyguards?

What home is complete without a stuffed lioness?

Or a salt cave?

Here is the tastefully flayed real crocodile on the dining table.

The chandelier at the entranceway.

And the entranceway itself.

Here we see Ukrainian citizens’ tax dollars at work. And what value for the money! President Yanukovych managed all this on a presidential salary of about $1000 a month.

I imagine this series will continue, because there are dozens and dozens more.

On The Road: Post-Soviet Museum Circuit

Here’s my latest monthly column as published on 19 August, 2019  on 3 Quarks Daily:

Thirty years ago this week two million people joined hands forming a human chain across 676 kilometers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Known as the Baltic Way, the visually arresting stunt was a cinematic cri de coeur for freedom.

In time freedom was theirs. The Russian military fled, sometimes trashing their barracks and looting along the way the way. As a measure of the state in which the Soviet Union left the Baltics, still now, thirty years on it takes around seven hours to travel by train between Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of two European countries separated by scarcely 200 miles. Imagine.

The Estonian and Latvian railways have finally co-ordinated their timetables, but you still have to walk across the platform to change trains at the border. By contrast, the drive takes perhaps four and a half hours, and, as both are now Schengen countries, your vehicle breezes through the abandoned border post without slowing down.

Much of that drive, after the tidy Estonian border town of Parnu, takes you south along the coast of the Gulf of Riga. Estonia and Latvia are lovely during this early bit of Baltic autumn, grasses with full summer growth waving in fields skirting Baltic shores.

•••••

The next time you’re in Tallinn, make time to visit the well done KGB Museum atop the Viru hotel. From a perch on the hotel’s top floor, the KGB spied on guests. The lifts stop at the 22nd floor and to get to the museum you proceed through locked gates to 23, a secret lair of surreptitious surveillance so needlessly paranoid the whole display veers toward the camp.

Funny the needless paranoia. Funny what they did. Funny only in retrospect, I’m sure, and from a considerable remove.

From the Viru’s opening in June of 1972 until May of 1991 when the spies hastily abandoned their post, ripping out planted microphones in guest room phones but leaving behind other incriminating items, they would mark out a restaurant table at which to seat a suspect foreigner, more often than not some poor sod Estonian immigrant back to visit family from the west.

The table’s ashtray (photo) contained a microphone (remember, this was 1980s and everyone smoked). If the guest put the ashtray on the next table, a waiter would sweep by to put it back. Plates like the one in the photo also had microphones in false bottoms.

The KGB spied on the help, too. Top-floor apparatchiks would leave a purse (the red one in the photo) on a table once in a while, and if a worker was tempted to open it in search of hard currency they’d be dye-bombed with red dye and immediately fired. Which was problematic, because unemployment was illegal, and could land you a spell in jail if you had a troublesome past.

Officially illegal unemployment produced unlikely jobs. The Viru, one hotel, mind, sustained 1080 jobs (for which 4000 applied). A job at the Viru brought proximity to hard currency and a scent, if nothing more, of the wider world. You’ve heard the wry old East Bloc joke about how the state would pretend to pay and the workers would pretend to work. At the Viru, you could make a career as a Food Weigher. There were to be 82 grams of chicken meat in chicken Kiev and 75 grams in à la carte versions.

A planned economy had to be planned and somebody had to do it. While potatoes, flour and meat were rationed via the Trade Board of the city council, more exotic orange juice, necessary for foreign hotel guests and high-ranking apparatchiks on holiday or “educational meetings,” was ordered from Moscow.

A Viru job meant access to forbidden goods. Tickets to the variety shows staged there and Viru bakers’ cakes, both could be traded; both were good as currency. Stockmann, the Helsinki-based department store with branches in Estonia, Latvia and Russia, still sells cakes using the recipe of then-Viru chef Kuno Plaan. His cakes, tradable for, say, auto parts, were a wild favorite, with people queueing from before dawn every day. The museum claims that Plaan’s liver paté could sell 100 kilos/day.

All of the Soviet Union’s tourist hotels were operated by Intourist, which at its height handled 145 hotels all the way to Vladivostok. Guests could expect the treatment the museum at the Viru depicts, all across the land. A floor lady, a hall monitor on each floor, recorded every client’s visitors, contacts, comings and goings. These ladies were usually older on the assumption that they wouldn’t meet a tall, dark foreign stranger and flee the country.

The hotel reception collected guests’ passports. At Tallinn’s Viru most visitors, almost all of them Finns, arrived on the ferry from Helsinki in tour groups, as in the visa-free trip to Vyborg, Russian Karelia I described in a previous articlewhere they still, this summer, keep your passport.

With the opening of the Viru in 1972 Finns flooded across the Gulf, and to their mild surprise, found themselves money changers and traders. YLE, the Finnish state broadcaster, says they came with suitcases full of everyday needs for Estonians:

“While useful, even vital to Estonians, the trade also reminded them of their reduced circumstances. ‘Yes, it burdened the Estonians,’ remembers Eva Lille, who led tours to Estonia in Soviet times. It exhausted them, the load of gratitude that came from it.”

In a 2013 article titled A Finnish Trojan horse in Soviet Tallinn, YLE wrote:

Viru was, in addition to the centre of tourism in Tallinn, local prostitutes’ most visible parade. They came from all over the Soviet Union, and many learned passable Finnish, as it was the main language used with customers.

Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish-Estonian author, tells … of a flight of stairs behind the sofas in the lobby. It allowed prostitutes to flash the soles of their shoes—on which they had written a price—to those sitting on the sofas without raising suspicion.”

•••••

Latvia’s KGB museum, down the coast, depicts a situation far less madcap and much more malign. At the corner of Brīvības and Stabu streets in Riga they weren’t running a covert unit, some mishap-riddled mad scientist routine like the Viru, but an office of interrogation and incarceration, complete with 44 basement cells and an execution room where, in six months in 1941, at least 141 people were shot or bludgeoned to death. Officially Internal Investigation Prison #1, it came to be known to residents as the Corner House.

From the museum:

“Occasionally, the prisoners would be taken, one cell at a time, to the small ‘exercise yard.’ There they could walk for approximately twenty minutes – single file, in a circle, hands behind their backs – no talking, no stopping, no sitting.

The yard had metal grating covering the top, and an elevated walkway was built so that an armed guard could observe the prisoners. In the winter, snow was removed from the yard so that prisoners could not hide notes in the snow.

Despite these conditions, visits to the exercise yard were welcomed, as they were the prisoners’ only contact with daylight and fresh air, as well as an opportunity to move about and escape the confines of the cell.

The execution area, the museum says,

“consisted of a large room fitted with garage doors in which trucks could back up. An adjoining small room was lined with timber and padded to muffle sounds. The walls were covered with a black, rubberized fabric. A drain for blood was installed in the corner of the tiled floor. During executions, truck engines would be turned on to drown out the noise of the shots. … A small calibre (6.35 mm) pistol was used to prevent excessive spattering of blood and brain matter; often more than one shot was needed to kill the prisoner. … [T]he Museum … has knowledge of at least 186 victims.”

Visit for a tour of the cells downstairs, and a continuous loop of remarkably feisty first-person video testimony from now-elderly survivors of the cells in the basement.

•••••

Where Tallinn is tiny, Riga spreads across either side of the Daugava river, a sprawling polyglot of a city. A former Hanseatic trading cousin of Gdansk and Visby Island and Stockholm, from the 13th century Riga has brokered commodities from the hinterland in the direction of Smolensk and Belarus for manufactured western Baltic goods.

Today, Latvians only outnumber ethnic Russians 44% to 37%, with attendant squabbles over questions of citizenship and language. The pro-Russian Mayor Nils Ušakovs was sacked in a corruption scandal back in April, around which time a survey showed 80 percent of Latvian-speaking readers favoured the dismissal whereas 70 percent of Russian readers opposed it.” Credit a city so divided for supporting (largely through grants and volunteers), a KGB museum.

Preferring just to look past the whole Soviet era, the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation presents Riga from prehistory until an abrupt end in 1940, the year the Soviets invaded. Latvia made much of 2018 as the centenary of its statehood after World War I.

•••••

There is a hint of the pagan in Latvia, a lingering mysticism kin to the flourishing Icelandic Ásatrú. It’s seen in the pre-Christian themes of Latvia’s ancient folk songs, the Dainas, typically little four line  musical poems, a sort of Latvian haiku, like this:

Trim kārtām zelta josta

The golden belt has three layers

Ap resno ozoliņu

Around the fat [giant] oak

Ne tam līda svina lode

No lead plumb touched it

Ne tērauda zobeniņis

Nor any sword of steel

The Auseklis, or Morning Star, is the very rough medieval equivalent of the Turkish Evil Eye, used to ward off trouble. It became identified as a symbol of Latvian national reawakening in the 1980s, at the time when the entire former East Bloc gradually began to stir.

The dominant theme in the Riga Cheka Museum (the KGB was called the Cheka at the time it used the Corner House) is open defiance of the Soviet order. Contemporaneously, the audacious 1979 visit of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II to eight Polish cities led to the rise of the Solidarność movement, and no visitor can miss the unsettlingly tall Solidarność monument outside the Gdansk shipyard where the movement flourished. But in southern Poland resistance operated more covertly.

In Wrocław, a cozy little restaurant just off Solny Squarealso bills itself a “historical education center.” In a nice touch, covertly placed behind a cabinet at Konspira is a repository of artifacts from the Solidarność uprising, walls lined with newspaper accounts, surreptitious communications gear (how outdated it looks now!), riot shields and helmets.

Konspira’s clever menu explains the state of affairs in Poland at the beginning of the 1980s and claims that “the symbol of ‘dove of peace’ was created in Hotel Monopol in Wrocław where, on a restaurant napkin in 1948 it was sketched by the then member of the French Communist Party … Pablo Picasso.” Konspira claims that in his spirit “The Freedom and Peace Movement was created by activists … primarily involved in protecting recruits refusing to serve or take the oath of ‘faithful service to the Soviet Army’” in occupied Poland.

Honorable Mention: in Kiev, drop by Остання Барикада  (The Last Barricade), or “OB” beneath Maidan Square, the locus of the students revolution in 1990, Orange revolution in 2004 and what they call the Revolution of Dignity that ousted President Viktor Yushchenko in 2014. Behind an unlikely entrance door (photo), OB requires a kitschy password to enter (email me) and serves up mementos from Ukraine’s revolutions, along with traditional pelmeny, salo, and locally produced sausages and cheeses.

•••••

Photos © Bill Murray Voices, Inc. except top photo of the Baltic Way protest in Lithuania, courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Rimantas Lazdynas [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Kyiv

The first time we visited Kyiv was in the month of March. There’s quite a difference in summer. Here are just a few low-res snapshots from day one. No post-production, no links to larger versions yet, just a few random shots from walking around town.

Dollars? Euros? Rubles?

The Maidan Square looks lovely at night.

At Maidan Square.

St. Sophia’s Church. Parts of it date from 11th century, most from 18th.

St. Sophia’s Church detail.

The Maidan.

Along the Dnieper River.

Pedestrian bridge across the Dnieper.

Friendship of Nations arch, from 1982, Soviet era.

Behind the lucky couple, St. Michaels Monastery. Unlike St. Sophia, which is a museum piece, St. Michael’s holds services.

And the exterior of St. Sophia.

Riga, Latvia

Thirty years ago this month some two million people joined hands forming a human chain across all 676 kilometers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The cinematic stunt was the Baltic cri de coeur for freedom. We visited KGB museums in both Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, and I’ll have a piece on the progress the Baltic states have made away from Communism in my next Three Quarks Daily column.

We’ve moved on to Ukraine now. I’ll leave you with these three photos from Riga for now:

These are hangars down along the Daugava River built by Nazi Germany for zeppelins. Since the whole zeppelin thing didn’t take off, they now house the central market.

A portion of the iconostasis at the Riga Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, dating from the late 1800s, on the lovely Esplanade park. The Soviets used it as a planetarium and restaurant.

Riga’s town planners were generous with their green space. Here are flowers in Kronvalda Park.

This slow trip around the world began in April and has comprised Vietnam, Thailand, Finland, Russia, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and, currently, Ukraine. Collected photos are here.