Peru: Another Country, Another Wedding – July 2009

2009 will go down as the year I hauled myself all over the place to attend weddings and seek respite from the global financial crisis.  Recently, I wrote about my experience attending the wedding of a buddy from graduate school in the Indian city of Jaipur.  Later this year, I plan to join another friend from graduate school at her wedding in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  This edition of NPR, however, regards a trip I made to Lima, Peru, to attend the April wedding of a former roommate. 

The wedding was sort of a homecoming for me.  The groom, a Spaniard named Daniel, was my roommate during my junior year of college when I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Although he now lives in Singapore, his bride, Cynthia, is Peruvian American.  Hence, the choice of Lima for the wedding.  The last time I had been to Lima was in 1997, when Daniel and I backpacked from Bogota, Colombia, to Buenos Aires over a six week period.  Through a combination of bus trips and flights, we worked our way down the Andes over a period of six weeks.

The trip I made together with Daniel represents a true watershed event in my life.  Before traveling to Argentina, I had never been out of the United States, save for a day trip to Niagara Falls when I was in high school.  Over the course of the trip, we visited Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, in addition to the northern provinces of Argentina.  As we made our way to Buenos Aires, we lived a number of (mis)adventures that took me outside of my comfort zone.  I rode on buses with numerous animals (including chickens, dogs, pigs, and even a cow in Chile), was searched numerous times by border agents and military (including at gunpoint), and climbed over a pile of melons and a crate of rotting fish to cross the Ecuador-Peru border.  I also spent 24 hours with nothing more than a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of water after the Bolivian banking system’s ATM and credit card systems went out of service and my pockets yielded less than a dollar of cash reserves.  I’m sure my mom will never forget that early morning collect call I made asking her to find a Western Union and bail me out of my temporary famine.  Over the course of that journey, I dramatically improved my Spanish and learned invaluable lessons about thinking on my feet and staying calm under pressure. 

One of the highlights of the trip was my stay in Peru.  At the time I visited, Lima was in the global spotlight as terrorists were holding more than 400 dignitaries hostage at the Japanese embassy.  Despite the crisis, I remember Lima for its historic Spanish colonial architecture and a particularly raucous night that ended with me singing the hot Latin song of the moment twice in a row at karaoke.  It was my Peruvian Idol moment and I briefly considered a career as a Latin pop star.   Thirteen years on, Lima has changed substantially from the city I knew in 1997.  Despite the world economic crisis, the economy is booming and Lima’s skyline is dotted with cranes and rapidly rising apartment blocks. 

Unlike the Indian wedding, I was far more familiar with the formalities of a Peruvian wedding.  The vast majority of Peruvians are Roman Catholic and the wedding ceremony took place in a colonial chapel housed in the historical center of the city.  I love attending Mass in Latin America.  As with anywhere else in the world, the mass is exactly the same as the countless masses I attended with Father Auger at St. Ignatius.  The text of the mass is a direct translation of the English text and the rituals are identical.  Until recently, the Catholic Church in Latin America forbid communicants to touch the communion wafer with their hands, so for added atmosphere, nearly everyone takes communion directly into their mouth from the priest’s hand.

The reception was also similar to an American wedding.  DJ, check.  Wedding cake, check.  Tearful speeches, check.  There was one notable local tweak.  At around midnight, a confetti gun shot a massive quantity of confetti over the dance floor.  In the ensuing chaos, guests were handed crazy hats (I chose a lion’s head over a huge replica of Bart Simpson’s head).  We were also handed countless long thin balloons.  Caught up in the excitement, I summoned up childhood memories of the professional balloon sculptors at the now-shuttered Ground Round in Portland and attempted to conjure up a few balloon animals. Unfortunately, I was only able to produce something along the lines of the hind legs as I attempted to craft a balloon dog. 

Having traveled through Peru thirteen years ago as a student, it was strange to visit the country at this stage in my life.  As I’m older now and not prone to rough it as I did in those days, I didn’t endure endless bus rides and $5 hotels.  Rather, I had the benefit of a comfortable hotel and I even – don’t tell anyone – went to Starbucks a few times.  While my experiences this time around in Peru were certainly not as raw as my backpacking trip, I don’t think I’ve entirely lost my edge.  After all, who says that seeing a crowd of Peruvians in Bart Simpson hats is less scary than being searched at gunpoint?


An Indian Wedding Crasher in the Making – June 2009

Earlier this year, I wrote about my experience staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in the months following the November 2008 terrorist attacks.  The purpose of my journey to India was to attend the wedding of a close friend from graduate school who lives in Bombay.  While I initially wavered on the decision to travel 7,000 miles to India, I ultimately decided that I wanted to join a great friend for such an auspicious occasion. 

 In any case,  I had been itching to get back to India and to explore the country in greater depth.  My one previous graduate school trip in 2003, while enjoyable, was characterized by group tours, peering out the windows of a bus, and mixing with my classmates.  Under my “Golden Rule of Travel,” or “GRT,” you haven’t seen a city or country until you’ve walked the streets, talked to the people, and gotten the local dirt under your fingernails.    I figured that I could use this trip to see India under the terms of the GRT. 

 Upon arriving in India, I realized that the wedding would be a one of a kind event.  The groom, my friend Shashank, is a terrific guy and an impeccable host.  In fact, the last time I had visited India, it was Shashank who took me all over Delhi to buy clothing and supplies after Indian Airways lost my luggage for a week. 

Shashank’s father is governor of the state of Rajasthan and the event was to be held in Rajasthan’s pink-painted capital of Jaipur, or the “Pink City.” The wedding was the talk of the town, with each day’s events covered breathlessly in the local newspaper.  Since a prominent and very popular Indian politician, Rahul Gandhi, was attending the wedding, the newspapers had spies who made sure to describe his every move.  For example, when describing the food Mr. Gandhi had enjoyed at one of the events, the Times of India wrote: “the Caesar salad and cheese fondue with side servings of kirsch, raw garlic, pickled gherkins, onions and olives were simply out of the world.”  Since I didn’t even get to try the pickled gherkins (I don’t think I know that they look like), I kicked myself upon reading that passage. 

 The tricky thing about an Indian wedding is that it is an exhausting multi-day affair that requires lots of costume changes by the bride, the groom, and the guests.  The first night was a festive dinner at a palace.  The second day consisted of a garden party at noon followed in the evening by a dance performance and a celebration called a Sangeet that ended at around 4 am.  Day three consisted of another lunch and then the evening wedding ceremony and reception.     

 Given all of the costume changes, I decided to adhere to another element of the GRT by opting for local attire for at least one of the events. With the help of a friend who lives in Bombay, I purchased a wedding outfit called a sherwani, which is basically a long coat-like garment that is worn over pants that are loose above the knee and tight on the calves. 

 I was glad that I made the purchase because I needed something to complement the turban I would be asked to wear during the ceremony.   When we arrived to the Governor’s Palace at about 6 pm, the friends of the groom were asked to join his family in a large salon where the men were fitted with multi-colored turbans.  After an hour or so, the groom’s entourage, now numbering around 100 people, was greeted by a large brass band and a series of horses.  The groom and his brother each mounted white horses and then rode about 20 meters to a waiting elephant.  They then mounted the elephant and proceeded to join the entourage on a parade around the estate grounds.  As friends of the groom, we were expected to dance in front of the elephant along the entire route. 

The celebration and the parade began to pick up in terms of intensity.  Imagine 100 revelers, a band of 30 musicians, a few horses, an honor guard, and an elephant, all marching around a pink palace.  Then add periodic fireworks that served to frighten the large flocks of bats that live in the trees on the palace grounds.  After about an hour of parading, including a brief delay when the elephant was too tall to pass through a gate, we arrived to the garden to deliver the groom to his wife for the Hindu ceremony. 

 While weddings are joyous occasions wherever they are celebrated, the Indians have their own take on the experience.  Clearly, my friend Shashank’s wedding was a unique event that would be rather atypical compared to the weddings of many of his countrymen.  I did learn, however, that even in the smallest Indian villages, weddings can go on for days.  There may not be a pink palace and an elephant, but the intensity of the celebration remains constant, whether you are in Rajasthan, Delhi, Bombay, or a rural village.  Now that I’ve got a sherwani and little experience, I’m hooked.  Don’t be too surprised if you hear about a guy from Maine replicating The Wedding Crashers all over India.

The Credit Crunch – November 2008

Unless you have been living blissfully under a rock or in a well placed hunting cabin located deep in the Maine woods, you have been following the rapidly unfolding turmoil that is gripping the global financial system.  As an employee of AIG Capital Partners, an affiliate company of the American International Group, I have spent the last several months on the front lines of this phenomenon.  For me, this period has been characterized by frequent day dreams about picking up my things and moving to a cabin somewhere in the brush north of Moosehead Lake. 

The economic events that have taken place over the last several months are shocking and disturbing, but they are not as uncommon as one might think.  While we are continually told that the United States has not faced as grave a crisis since the Great Depression, in places like Turkey or Argentina, this is not the case.  Since the turn of the century, both of these nations suffered financial meltdowns that were far more traumatic than what we are living in the United States today.  In fact, outside of the United States and Western Europe, there is a long list of countries that have periodically lived through harrowing economic crises over the last fifty years.  The difference this time is that the United States and Europe are part of the crowd. 

As I’ve spent my entire career working with emerging markets (or developing economies), I was pretty much accustomed to seeing groups of economies crash every couple of years.  In 1996, the Mexican Peso Crisis took down Mexico and South America.  In 1998, the Asian Financial Crisis devastated Southeast Asia and managed to take down Russia and Brazil shortly thereafter.  Turkey lived through crises in 1998 and 2001 while Argentina entered a tailspin in late 2001.  While these events were all different due to the specific qualities of the economies involved, they had common threads.  Undoubtedly, these nations suffered a combination of the following:  a stock market crash, the fall of the government, street riots, a steep fall in the value of the local currency, foreign debt default, the evaporation of credit, massive economic contraction, and the failure of major companies.  In all of these cases, ordinary citizens were subjected to tremendous uncertainty, stress, and shock at the sudden loss of personal and national wealth. 

As I watched these events unfold on a computer monitor in New York or on the ground on a business trip, I never envisioned that I would someday live through something even remotely similar in my own country.  Rather, I would tend to think something like: “It’s shame, but they had it coming to them given their blatant mismanagement of their economy.”  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I recognize that things may not have been so cut and dried. 

The good news, if you’ll indulge me a bit, is that the current situation in the United States, while it is certainly difficult, cannot compare (so far) to the kinds of things that have historically taken place in the emerging markets.  Let’s take Argentina for example.  While we have all suffered through strong increases in food and gas prices over the past year, this doesn’t hold a candle to the hyperinflation that has periodically gripped Argentina over the last 40 years.  An Argentine friend of mine tells me that during the late 1980’s employees would chase shoppers around supermarkets with price guns in order to increase prices since annual inflation at that point exceeded 3000% per year.  We also haven’t seen the kind of unrest that caused mass street violence in Argentina in early 2002.  I’ll never forget when my colleague Marcelo called me frantically from JP Morgan’s offices in Buenos Aires to tell me that a mob had started to break into the building to express its rage at the international financial community.  Thankfully, Marcelo managed to sneak out undetected.  

Thus, while the current financial crisis has certainly been painful, both in personal sense and as a citizen of the United States, I have tried to find a silver lining.  This experience has given me a profound sense of empathy for those around the world who have suffered far worse conditions.  It has also served to remind me that in a world that is ever more economically interconnected, crises will spread faster than before.  After all, our government has spent the last 70 years, since the end of World War II, promoting exactly the type of global economic integration – from trade agreements to deregulation – that causes these types of events to spread from nation to nation like a bad case of the flu.  While I’m still a believer in the merits of these policies, I also feel that the best thing that we can do as Americans is to take our medicine, learn from the experience, and recognize that events like the credit crunch are global in nature.  Of course, if things don’t get better soon, you might have to find me contemplating these lessons from a remote cabin somewhere in Maine.

Turkey at the Crossroads – June 2008

Over the last year, Turkey has been in the news with some frequency.   From mammoth street protests against the perceived deterioration of societal secularism to the Parliament’s approval of Islamic headscarves in universities, Turkey is passing through a time of profound internal discussion.  Since I’ve been to Turkey almost 20 times in the last two and half years, I’ve had a front row seat to this process.  In fact, I was in Istanbul a few weeks ago when the court system overturned the headscarf law and banned them once again.

Turkey’s capital, Istanbul, is a timeless city that has been populated for over 6,000 years. It is typically referred to as the crossroads between East and West as it sits on the two shores of the Bosphorus, which is the narrow body of water that separates Europe and Asia.  Thus, in a typical day, one can wake up in Europe, cross a bridge to have lunch in Asia, and take a cab back to Europe by early afternoon. 

The first time that I visited Turkey, in late 2005, I had no idea what to expect given the fact that Turkey is a Muslim nation.  Somehow, I expected Istanbul to feel very Middle Eastern, conservative, and Islamic.  Like many visitors, I found something quite different than what I had imagined.  Istanbul is a highly cosmopolitan city with energetic nightlife, and citizens that look and dress like their neighbors in Europe.  In fact, most visitors to Turkey would find Istanbul to have plenty in common with the other great cities of Europe.  As any Turkish person will remind you, while they are largely Muslim, the Turks are not part of the Arab world, but rather have their own distinct culture that is quite different from the Middle East. 

Scratching below the surface, one quickly learns that Turkey is a complex place.  First of all, it’s in a tough neighborhood.  With neighbors like Iran, Iraq, and Syria, things don’t stay quiet for too long in the region.  Second, Turkey is a country that is constantly wrestling with the interaction between religion, secularism, democracy, and modernity.  While many Turks in Istanbul and the western part of Turkey consider themselves European and secular, the heartland and eastern section of the country are far more conservative, religious, and traditional.  It’s not unlike the red state/blue state divide that we see in the United States.

The pull between East and West is a fundamental element of life in Istanbul.  For example, my company’s office is located in a part of the city that would fit in well in Vienna or Prague.  The streets are lined with luxury goods stores and girls in the latest Parisian fashions cautiously navigate their way across the streets in high heels.  At the same time, directly across the street is a large and historic mosque that broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer five times per day.  Yet in the mosque’s courtyard there is an über-trendy café where Istanbul hipsters dressed in jean and t-shirts drink lattes, oblivious to the religious programming going on next door.  Still, at the same time, in another part of the city, visitors will see women wearing headscarves shopping at local markets.  In sum, Istanbul, much like Turkey itself, won’t – or can’t – allow itself to be easily classified. 

My experiences in Turkey have taught me that the line between religious and secular society can be very blurry.  Take the example of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month during which observant Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.  First of all, let me note that Ramadan is one of my favorite times of year.  As a non-Muslim, I’m not required to fast during Ramadan, although I try not to eat of drink in front of those who are fasting.  The payoff comes at sunset when the massive meal to break the fast, or ifthar, is served.  Although I’ve made none of the sacrifices entailed in fasting, I get to take part in a veritable feast.  It’s sort of like having Thanksgiving every day for a month. 

In any case, while in some nations like Kuwait, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are forbidden by law from eating or drinking in public during the season, Turkey is quite the opposite.  Fasting is an individual choice and in cities like Istanbul, as many citizens choose to fast as those who do not.  In that way, Turkey does not fit the traditional perception that most Westerners have about Muslim nations.  Instead, in its approach to religion, Turkey, at least in cities like Istanbul, reminds me much more of a nation in Europe or even the United States.  Of course, I haven’t yet been to the rural east of Turkey – but then again, I haven’t been to rural Alabama either.   


Going off the Grid in Mongolia – May 2008

Our passions, much like our addictions, often drive us to what some might see as flights of excess.  Where I used to aspire to travel around the States or Europe on vacation, I now find myself seeking places that are farther from the beaten path.  Perhaps this is inevitable given the fact that as a teenager, I frequently hiked the Mousam Way trail.   Somehow, in my own way I wanted to “go off the grid” even within the confines of Sanford and Springvale.

A few years ago, this search for increasingly remote destinations led me to fixate on Mongolia, the homeland of Genghis Khan.  I’m not sure why it occurred to me to travel to Mongolia, but I guess the kernel of the idea came from a friend whose parents had once worked there.  Next, I looked at a map and decided that any country with a capital city called Ulaan Bataar had to be pretty cool.  In any case, upon finishing grad school, I set out for a three-week trek across Mongolia with a few friends. 

Mongolia’s roughly three million inhabitants live in a vast expanse that the lowest population density in the world.  Approximately 40% of the population is nomadic and horses outnumber people.  Outside of the capital, nearly everyone lives in ghers (also called yurts), or circular cloth covered huts that are the Mongolian equivalent of a tee-pee.  The gher, which is roughly the size of a typical American living room and windowless save for a hole in the roof to release cooking fumes, houses the entire family. 

One of the central objectives of the trip was to attend the annual Nadaam.  Nadaam is an ancient festival that is the local equivalent of the Olympic Games and is held in the tiny national stadium.  There are four events:  wrestling, long distance horse racing conducted by child jockeys, archery, and my favorite, a game that involves people making projectiles out of sheep anklebones.  I found the combination of events to be a little unusual, but then again, I didn’t want to judge:  I imagine that the average Mongolian would find it odd that the La Kermesse festival celebrated by our friends in Biddeford has a frog as its mascot.

Following Nadaam, we set out for the Gobi desert.  Since there is not too much to do in the way of traditional sightseeing, it’s typical to spend afternoons traveling around for miles with a guide to visit families in their isolated ghers.  Upon arriving at the gher, the routine is pretty simple.  First, it is tradition to yell out “no-khoi kho-rio” or “hold the dog!” before entering the home.  Once inside, visitors sit on woolen rugs, snack on local favorites such as horse or camel milk cheese, and hit the snuff bottle.  If everyone’s feeling a little wild, the host will break out a bottle of fermented horse’s milk called airag.  Unfortunately, unlike the cheese, which you can pretend to eat and then subtlety slip into your pocket if it’s not to your taste, you’ve got to swallow down the airag heartily lest the host be offended. 

Not content with just visiting a gher, we also stayed in a gher camp for visitors.  Heck, I thought to myself, if rural Mongolian families can spend their entire lives in a gher, I could handle a few nights.  I realized the hazards of gher living on my second night in the camp.  At around midnight, I settled into sleep with the contentment that I, like any true Mainer, was roughing it.  Within minutes, however, my self-satisfaction was pierced by the sound of something tapping the floor every couple of seconds.  The noise suggested that a series of small objects were falling onto the floor, and soon enough, several of these small objects fell onto me.  When I turned on my flashlight, I realized that the cooking hole on the roof also provided a convenient entry point for the hundreds of desert beetles that were now crawling all over the roof and increasingly the floor of the gher.  Somewhere in the night, I heard a British woman cry, “Something just fell in my ear!” 

Although I spent the rest of that night huddled under an improvised sheet tent, I slept surprisingly well and awoke renewed  Similarly, I found most of Mongolia, from the ghers of the Gobi to the spectacle of Nadaam, to be refreshing and timeless.  While there are Internet cafes springing up all over Ulaan Bataar and cell phones are pretty common, Mongolian daily life remains radically different from the modern American existence. The nation’s strong connection to the past and to tradition serves as a reminder of some of the qualities that we must sacrifice to live in a fast moving society. While our culture has been penetrated by amazing technologies, the creeping intrusions of modernity often blunt our appreciation for life’s simple pleasures.  I, for one, find myself increasingly happy to leave behind my cell phone and blackberry for a while to immerse myself in an entirely different world.  Luckily, in Mongolia, I enjoyed this transformative experience without having a beetle fall into my ear.

Asia’s Rapid Transformation and the Starbucks Effect – December 2007

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Asia a number of times for personal and business travel.   Before and after graduate school, I spent several months backpacking through thirteen nations in the region.  For the last two years, I’ve been traveling there for work, although I usually pack in a few extra days to visit friends or to stop for a quick vacation.  In October of this year, I traveled to Beijing to attend the board meeting of an auto parts company in which my firm has an investment.  I figured that since I was in the general area   it made sense to check in on another investment in the Philippines, and then spend a few days of downtime in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. 

Since I’ve been traveling regularly to China and Asia since 2002, I have been able to track some of the tremendous changes that have been taking root since that time.  While it sounds a bit trite, in my opinion, the tenor of these changes is captured in the explosive growth of Starbucks locations.  A few years ago, Starbucks was a rare luxury in Beijing that seemed aimed at expatriates.  These days, store are everywhere and are packed with native Chinese, many of whom seem to like the Green Tea Latte (highly recommended, although I’ve got to admit that it feels more authentic to buy it in Asia than at the Target in Biddeford).   The same thing goes for Malaysia and the Philippines.  Although I hadn’t had the chance to visit these countries before this year, I was shocked at the sheer number of Starbucks in both places.  For example, in Manila, I faced the dilemma of choosing between the store in my hotel and one located directly across the street.  

Before I go any further, I should clarify something: I am not a huge fan of Starbucks coffee.   I tend to be more of a Dunkin’ Donuts type of guy.  During high school, my friends and I basically lived at the Dunkie’s in Sanford (this was back in the stone ages when there was just one store for the entire Sanford-Springvale metro area).  We were also regulars at the gone-but-not-forgotten Sweet Sensations in Springvale due to their large selection of Green Mountain Coffee.  Still, I admire Starbucks tremendously, because I think it really says something when a retailer can convince people in places like China and the Philippines, let alone Manhattan, to spend the equivalent of several US dollars on a cup of coffee.  The ability of a company like Starbucks to flourish in these places is a clear indicator that economic prosperity is supporting the emergence of a robust and aspirational middle class.   

I’m not suggesting that having a bunch of Starbucks stores makes a country a better place.  Rather, I see this phenomenon as a leading indicator that parts of Asia are changing in a fundamental and irrevocable way.  For example, China is going through a period of rapid transformation due to breakneck growth in its economy and the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics.  From every indication, 2008 will be the year that China truly steps onto the world stage in a big way.  I see the recent controversy surrounding tainted Chinese imports as a small blip that serves as good rhetoric for protectionist politicians.  I doubt that Americans are willing to forego the savings offered by less expensive imports from China.  In any case, I’m not sure where one can find a vast array of items that are “Made in America” these days, but it’s certainly not at America’s largest retailers.  In fact, according to NPR, 80% of toys sold in the US are imported from China.   

Of course, it’s not particularly surprising that a massive city like Beijing would have a flock of Starbucks stores in 2007.  I was much more intrigued to see the stores dotting central Manila.  The economic changes that support the emergence of a Starbucks class in the Philippines are largely due to the overnight growth of the call center industry and high wages it offers to its well-educated employees.  Since the Philippines was once a United States territory, many citizens speak excellent American-accented English, making the island a natural hub for offshoring for US clients.  I was in the city to visit our investment in such a call center provider, and I was impressed to find a legion of young people who are creating an incipient middle class. 

In his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” the writer and columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the arrival of a McDonald’s to a country has an interesting correlation with world peace.  In fact, he asserted at the time that there had never been a war between two countries with McDonald’s restaurants.  While there are exceptions to the rule (i.e., the US intervention in Panama in 1989), I’ll take a page from Friedman’s book and suggest that the arrival of Starbucks to a country has something to tell us about how to follow the trail of affluence as it reaches new countries and peoples.  Of course, I do see a personal downside to this trend:  I tried to buy a Green Tea Latte is Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood just this morning and they were all sold out.

Azerbaijan: An Ancient Crossroads Confronts the Oil Boom – October 2007

Recently, I was in Istanbul for a board meeting and had a break of several days before heading off to Warsaw for another obligation.  I decided that I would leave Turkey and spend a few days relaxing somewhere nearby.  My criterion for picking a location was pretty simple:  I wanted to go to a country that is still pro-American.  These days, given the complex state of our world, goodwill towards our country has faded, at least for a time, in many places.  As a relatively patriotic guy, I was looking to bask in some good feelings for a change.  Narrowing down the choice to Azerbaijan was pretty easy versus Turkey’s other unabashedly pro-American neighbors like Bulgaria (had a chance to go there a few years ago) and Albania (probably the most pro-American country in Europe, but I heard that some bad Albanian apple stole President Bush’s watch when he was there a few months ago).

Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, is a city of about 2 million people that sits on the coast of the Caspian Sea.  It was a key trading center on the Silk Road and there is a fortified maze-like old city at its center that dates back to the 7th Century.   In the early 20th Century, an oil boom provided the cash for the city to be constructed in the image of Paris.  Throw in some regional wars and domination by the Soviet Union, and the Baku of today, much like Buenos Aires or Bucharest, reminds me of a somewhat derelict version of Paris. 

Just a three hour flight from Istanbul, the city is perhaps one of the most dramatic beneficiaries of the current oil boom.  Over the last couple of years, surging oil prices have shifted a tremendous amount of wealth from one part of the world to another.  Consumers in countries that are highly dependent on oil imports have lined the pockets of the companies and individuals that control these resources.  Since petroleum accounts for over 50% of the country’s wealth, the size of the Azeri economy doubled last year due to the surge in oil prices.  Given its surging, albeit poorly distributed wealth, and the importance of trade to its economy, Baku is a pretty cosmopolitan place. 

As a kid, I remember that at times we’d discuss as a family what each of us would do if we won Megabucks.   Given the tremendous influx of cash into the country and its concentration in a few lucky hands, Baku is being rapidly modernized and upgraded.  Thus, Azerbaijan, in its own way, is currently grappling with this very question.   Based on what I saw during my stay in Baku, the Azeris have decided to spend their Megabucks winnings on blocks of new apartment buildings, which means that the cityscape is dominated by groupings of cranes.  On the streets, a herd of luxury goods companies, from Chopard and Hugo Boss to Ferre and Armani, is opening new stores or remodeling existing locations. 

 One of the things that I really like about a place like Azerbaijan is the unusual types of characters with whom you have a chance to connect.  On my last day in the city, I decided to head into town to the Sunday market to add to my collection of army medals from the communist days.  On the way back to the hotel, I hailed a taxi.  The driver, a man in his 60’s, smiled and asked me if I was from Sweden, or Ireland, or perhaps England (whether I’m in Asia, Latin America, or Europe, people always think I’m Swedish).  No, I responded, “I am an American.”  “Great! I love Americans,” he exclaimed.  “I will give you a ride in my Volga – did you know that the Volga is the Russian Mercedes?” 

 On the way to the hotel, he pointed to the CD player and asked me if I would like to hear a recording of his son, a folk singer who has apparently toured extensively in Europe.  As the brother of a musician and the son of parents’ who like to share CD’s of their son with third parties, I couldn’t resist.  He popped in the CD and the Volga was filled with the sounds of Azeri folk music.  

 As we sped through the city accompanied by the sounds of timeless Azeri folk music, it occurred to me that despite all of the changes in the country over the last several years, somehow the Azeri people appear to remain connected to their history.  Since the 7th century, the country has represented a crossroads between East and West, yet it has preserved its culture even while drawing on outside influence as a source of prosperity.  Moreover, the Azeri culture survived both the domination and disintegration of the Soviet Union.  Somehow, something tells me that this fundamental trait will continue even as new wealth enters the country during the current boom.  After all, how much can an Armani store really change a nation’s soul?