Friday, October 31, 2008

"Gonna Eat 'Em All Up...

...just as soon as they turn blue." The immortal words of Buckner and Garcia truly inspired Carter's Halloween costume design. A few weeks ago, we asked Carter what he would like to be for Halloween. His response: "A Pac-Man power dot!" Did he want to be Pac-Man or a ghost? No, he wanted to be the dot that Pac-Man eats, enabling him to consume the ghosts. We were skeptical at first, attempting to persuade him to be something else. An astronaut or cat perhaps (since we already had those costumes)? No. We even tried to use his love of geography, attempting to persuade him to be a country of his choice. His response, "This year, I will be a Pac-Man power dot. Next year, I will be Indonesia." We eventually realized that the power dot was a conceptually brilliant choice. With a couple dollars worth of foam core, markers, velcro, and an exacto knife, Erik and Carter put the costume together.

Halloween started early in Lawrence, with special events at Prairie Park and the residence halls on the Sunday prior to the holiday. Carter and Erik wandered through the nature center trails, encountering characters from fairy tales distributing candy. Carter met mermaids, trolls, nymphs, witches, and Robin Hood (who went out of character to express his fondness for Pac-Man). Unfortunately, Sunday was cold and extremely windy. Poor Carter was chilled to the bone after the park, and was unsure of trick-or-treating at the residence halls. Erik convinced him to give it a try, and he was rewarded amply for this choice. Erik and Lea agree that he was rewarded too amply.

The young women of Corbin and GSP halls were charmed by Carter, lavishing praise on his outfit (it is definitely 80s-retro cool), snapping his photo, and giving him candy... lots of candy. Carter was thrilled by the attention, and became an expert at knocking on the door, saying "trick or treat," and holding out his plastic jack-o-lantern for prizes. By the end of the evening, Erik carried the pumpkin bucket because it was too heavy - laden with 80 pieces of candy. We know that there were 80 because upon his arrival home, Carter held a census. While we hoped to give some of it away on Halloween day, Carter knows every piece that he received and has set up a plan for when he will eat each piece.

Halloween day trick-or-treating venues were at school and in the neighborhood. Carter's pre-school invited all of the kids to come in costume and march in a parade. Carter's friends dressed as a robot, turtle, witch, spider, and other creatures. In the evening, Lea and Carter took advantage of the gorgeous weather to stroll from house to house, politely requesting candy. Erik stayed home to pass out treats. After an hour or so, Lea and Carter returned to conduct a final candy tally. The total? 110 pieces!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Old Man Herron

Erik turned 40 on Sunday, and we spent the day together harassing him and sharing some fun family activities. After a wonderful brunch in Kansas City, we went to a cider mill in Belton, where Carter enjoyed his first cider mill donut. We continued on to Deanna Rose Farm, one of Carter's favorite places. Then, we attended one of Erik's hockey games. We hoped to have a photograph of him in the penalty box (or as Carter calls it, the time-out box), but, alas, he was not tough enough (he only got an assist). We returned home for ginger-carrot cake.

We will continue to harass him for being old, although Carter is unconvinced that daddy had a birthday since he does not look any taller!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 8: Conclusion

As Erik's adventure winds down, he took a final long stroll through the city. In addition to seeing the standard tourist sites of Baku, such as the Maiden's Tower (photo above), he also spent time outside the city center. He stopped along the way, chatting with food vendors and shopkeepers. Erik spoke Russian with almost everyone, and was pleased to be mistaken initially for a Pole or someone from the Baltics. He had several interesting conversations, including one with young carpet vendors convinced that the US government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, and another with an Iranian store owner about the US Electoral College and politics in Iran. The latter conversation earned him an invitation to visit Iran!

He also talked with some street food purveyors. Azeri cuisine seems to be a true fusion food, combining elements of Turkish, Georgian, Persian, and other traditions. For example, Erik has tasted a delicate yogurt soup, as well as the heavy flavors of lamb organ meat (kidneys, liver, etc.) wrapped in intestinal lining and grilled. After thanking many of the people who helped him on this trip, Erik had a nice dinner with Elchin (eggplant salad and an Azeri soup with dumplings).

Erik learned alot on his trip, and owes his successes to his many friends in Baku. He hopes to return to Baku once again in the future (Inshallah)!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 7: Все на Выборы!

Erik and Arzu visited eleven polling stations in three districts of Baku over the course of election day. Erik set out before the sun rose to meet Arzu at the metro stop near their initial destination. They arrived in plenty of time to watch pre-opening preparations, including the official sealing of ballot boxes. That polling station was adorned with the blue, red, and green of Azerbaijan's flag, along with images of Heydar Aliyev. Heydar Aliyev's image was dominant, but not omnipresent (a bust of Aliyev glows behind a voter in a photo below).

As the polls opened, the first voters filed through. Although a young, uniformed man was the first person to cast a ballot, the "prize" for the first voter went to an elderly woman. During the Soviet period, and in some post-Soviet elections that Erik has witnessed, the first voter received a present and the applause of all present. Today's election was no different. The polling station director had a gift not only for the first voter, but for all voters casting their first ballot ever.

The occasion was festive, with polling stations blaring popular Azeri music (see the video above). At the polling station for a fine arts university, students played folk music and dressed in traditional costumes (see the photo at the top).

The Central Electoral Commission has announced a big win for Ilham Aliyev. Preliminary results indicate that turnout was 75.64%, and the president received 89.04% of the vote. Turnout varied across the country; the districts where Arzu and Erik observed had relatively low reported turnout (falling to 107th, 120th, and 122nd place out of 125 districts).

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 6: Baku's Back Alleys

Election day not only provided an opportunity to witness the presidential election in progress, but to explore the narrow, circuitous alleys of old Baku. Erik and his translator Arzu went on foot to several polling stations during the day (more about this later). Arzu suggested that they take the more interesting route through the older part of the city, and it was the right choice. Without an experienced guide, it would be easy to get lost. Fortunately, Arzu knew how to navigate the way. The pictures tell the tale best, and several follow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 5: Election Eve

Election day has almost arrived and the level of anticipation remains low. Officially, campaigning ended on Monday. However, the intensity of campaign activity was meager at best. Promotional materials could not be attached to any surfaces outside, except official bulletin boards at polling stations (see the photo to the right). Posters could be attached to windows from the inside facing the street, however. Most businesses had President Ilham Aliyev's image on display (see the photo in a previous post, and one at the bottom of this post). In a few stores on the outskirts of Baku, Erik saw other candidates' material in view. Posters are gone now, however.

At the Central Electoral Commission press conference that Erik attended on Tuesday, the CEC chair touted innovations in the administration process. Azerbaijan's CEC has a substantial amount of material available online in several languages, and also has an Information Center dedicated to election coverage. Its technological prowess is featured in some of its advertisements. As you see on the poster to the right, the CEC is not only online, but it endorses Microsoft IE over open-source competitors like Firefox.

The most interesting moment of the press conference came when the CEC chair demonstrated the webcams that have been placed in 500 polling stations around the country (just under 10% of all polling stations). Erik was quite skeptical that this plan would be realized. The CEC announced that webcams would be used late in the process, and many of the facilities that house polling stations are unlikely to have reliable high-speed Internet connections. But, all of the test cameras seemed to work, showing polling stations (see the photo above). Most polling stations were empty, but people were visible milling about in a few cases. In answer to a reporter's question, the CEC chair indicated that Azerbaijan was the "first country in Europe" to use the Internet in this way (an assertion which is probably true, except perhaps the part about being in Europe). He also indicated that the cameras were supposed to stay on during the vote count. After the press conference, Erik tried to access the site, but it was password protected. Presumably this will change by tomorrow.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 4: People in the Neighborhood

The Caspian Business Center is in a neighborhood undergoing substantial physical change. The change is not only due to construction, however. Many Chechen refugees have resettled in this part of town, and they seem to be less secular than Baku Azeris. People in Azerbaijan are Shi'ia, but Baku features an interesting mix of traditional values and behaviors along with secular ones. As you enter the neighborhood, you see a monument to women casting off the veil. Indeed, women in Baku are not veiled nor do they typically wear scarves (ironically, Erik has only seen women with their heads covered in this neighborhood near the statue above. These women may be Chechens rather than Azeris).

Saturday and Sunday were light work days (a visit to a local university was the work highlight), so Erik took the opportunity to walk around. In the evening, Elchin and Farhad (another scholar who has spent time in Lawrence) strolled a bit along the Caspian Sea boardwalk. But, chilly, rainy weather ended the evening early.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 3: Going Up?

As an earlier dispatch noted, construction is booming in Baku. Old neighborhoods are being leveled and replaced with high-rise buildings, but in a disorderly fashion. No zoning codes dictate how close buildings may be placed to one another, how high they may be built, or how the mix of commercial and residential properties should be balanced. In addition, shoddy and corrupt construction practices have led to horrible accidents. A building recently collapsed near Erik's hotel (prior to his arrival), killing many workers. The construction company had been selling the concrete designed for load-bearing walls, filling them instead with sand.

Poor quality construction is evident everywhere. The Caspian Palace hotel is located in the Caspian Business Center, a relatively new building. But, cracking walls, poorly fitted fixtures, and other evidence of limited quality control abound. Upon Erik's arrival, the entire curtain assembly fell from his ceiling (and he had no curtains for a couple of nights). The cheap plastic parts had been connected to the ceiling with small screws. In addition, the bare wood in the ceiling revealed that this was probably not the first time the assembly had fallen (a point backed up by the maid who shook her head and told Erik that it had happened before).

Unfortunately, Baku may be headed toward a grisly catastrophe similar to what we witnessed in China a few months ago. According to Elchin, local seismologists have noted that even a 4.0 earthquake could bring down much of the new construction in Baku. Baku is in an area of elevated seismic activity; the last major earthquake around 8 years ago was more intense than the feared 4.0. However, the construction boom post-dates that earthquake, so it will not be tested until the next major temblor.

On Friday, Erik attended a roundtable featuring political scientists and a former opposition party official. The roundtable's theme was the election, and all of the participants reflected pessimistically on the current state of pluralism in Azerbaijan. Of course, the fact that participants could talk openly about these matters is a good sign. But, the space for political dialogue is limited. Erik asked whether or not construction issues could be used as a springboard for the opposition (just as citizens have protested corruption and inadequate regulation of construction in China). He was told that in the wake of the building collapse noted above, some individuals attempted to force the issue, laying flowers and meeting at the site. Their efforts were thwarted by the police who removed the flowers and did not allow protests to continue.

Mosque under construction.

New sidewalks near the Caspian Sea boardwalk.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Azerbaijan Adventure, Part 2: Stormy Weather?

Alexis de Tocqueville, an astute observer of American politics well over a century and a half ago, remarked that during the election period in the United States:

"As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favorite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement; the election is the daily theme of the public papers, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present. As soon as the choice is determined, this ardor is dispelled; and as a calmer season returns, the current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level: but who can refrain from astonishment at the causes of the storm." (Full text of Democracy in America is available at the Gutenberg Project).

In Azerbaijan, no threatening storm draws near. Aside from a few campaign posters of President Ilham Aliyev displayed in store windows, there is no evidence that the presidential election is less than one week away. The major opposition parties are boycotting the election and the results are entirely predictable: President Aliyev will be re-elected.

Six of the seven candidates were scheduled to take part in a roundtable discussion today, and Erik attended the event with Elchin. Only two of the candidates actually attended, and two sent surrogates. One of the candidates, Fazil Gazanfaroglu (person on the left in the picture on the left), served in government in the early 1990s, and is currently a member of parliament. He criticized the electoral process, but especially the OSCE's report which stated that the opposition candidates have no real policy differences (he noted that his policies differed from others in many ways). Hafiz Hajiyev (picture on the right), the other candidate present, is nicknamed "Fish Hafiz" because his resume includes a stint in the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He also criticized the election process, the media, and NGOs. His comment that democracy aid from the West has probably furnished the homes of opposition elites provoked the most laughter during the fairly somber affair.

The major unanswered question for this election is whether or not voters will come to the polls. Central Electoral Commission efforts to encourage voter turnout have produced a great, kitschy election souvenir. On the left, you see a pen with a young Azeri woman in a tank top and jeans, and the CEC logo. Upon closer inspection, you find that the picture unscrolls into a flag. Since the pen is produced by Azerbaijan's CEC, there is no risk of any salacious images inside. Unfurling the banner reveals the image on the right: "Choose or Lose" Azeri style.

Aside from the roundtable and another research-oriented meeting, Erik also made a presentation to youth activists at the IRI office (see the photo at the top of the post). His talk focused on various election issues, but substantively addressed the upcoming US presidential election. The participants were surprisingly split in their opinions on the US campaign. John McCain is generally the preferred candidate in Azerbaijan because of his policies related to the South Caucasus region and his unwillingness to support resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide in Turkey during the early part of the 20th century. Many of the attendees indeed favored McCain, but Obama also had many supporters.