May 27, 2008

POSTCARD: Playing in the Park

My friend Camille shares my addiction for travel and she's been EVERYWHERE. Here's a bit that she sent me from China--her one last fling before flinging herself off to the emerald city that is Dubai.

On my way to the Temple of Heaven, I was distracted for more than two hours watching individuals and groups engage in various forms of exercise, music, and merriment. Two separate groups of 30 to 50 couples were waltzing, and more than 75 women danced with fans. I saw groups balancing balls on racquets while walking, swaying, and turning around; walkers with ski poles; a group stretching dramatically to an elevator music rendition of Edelweiss, and young people riverdancing to trance music.

I heard loud cracking and realized it was a group of men cracking whips. One man motioned for me to try it, so I grabbed the whip and they all took a step back. A group of old men laughed together as they flew colorful kites. (Have you ever seen anyone over 60 flying a kite in the US?) Following a loud whirring noise, I found about 15 middle-aged men balancing and moving large tops on strings. The most accomplished twirler moved the top across his legs, over his head, and jumped jauntily over the top as it swung under his legs.

Next I discovered the musical section of the park. A harmonica band played while one woman danced; several choirs sang; and a group of about 80 people clapped rhythmically and chanted. The most entertaining sight was an old man with one tooth, a Santa Claus hat, and a frilly apron, lip-synching the high-pitched female part of a Peking opera while batting his eyelashes. Even the Chinese were gathered around laughing at the spectacle.

-Camille Heaton
Photo by Camille Heaton

May 19, 2008

My Book in Polska

The worst kind of mail are bills, followed by junk mail. The best kind of mail is a totally unexpected package and when you open it, you find books. Books that you wrote! But in a different language! The Polish version of "Ukraine" showed up today and my does it look classy. National Geographic did the Polish version, so the layout and photography is top notch and I absolutely love the cover (cool font, huh?) I can't pretend to read Polish, but it's so cognitive with Ukrainian that I can guess my way through it. For all of you authentic Polish-speaking travelers, you can purchase my book by clicking through to National Geographic Poland.

Up next is the Polish version of Iceland, which I am most excited about, given that a huge wave of travelers to Iceland are Poles (go figure). Even the signs in the public library are in Polish. All this after I just submitted an article on the hottest clubs and restaurants in Warsaw. Yes, I'm feeling all things Polish right now. Dzienkuje Bardzo National Geographic!

May 14, 2008

Live at the Smithsonian

So the news is out, I'm doing another talk at the Smithsonian in July, entitled "The Insider's Washington, DC." I always love doing these, both for the audience members who are always so enthusiastic and for the chance I get to research a place in depth. Instead of something exotic, this time I'm covering my own backyard, wonderful Washington, DC! It's one of the most international places I know, so it's only fitting that I should be doing a travel lecture.

Find out more and purchase tickets by clicking here: Andrew Evans@Smithsonian

May 9, 2008


Watched "The Singing Revolution" last night. What started out as a weak, PBS-style documentary swiftly turned into a powerful recounting of a powerful story: the independence movement of the Estonian nation, the annual singing festival Laulupidu, and the peaceful break with the Soviet Union. Very moving and highly recommended.

On a personal note, the film includes lengthy interview from Mart Laar, who I worked with throughout Ukraine. He truly is an inspiring man and it was nice to finally get the back story of the brave work he accomplished in his own country. Watching the film, I discovered that Mart was my age when he became Prime Minister of Estonia (!)

The song festival occurs every summer (July) and I am now keen to make it there one of these years. I love folk songs of any nation, and when song en masse in Estonian the music is neither creepy nor totalitarian--only peaceful and beautiful. In lieu of the film's official trailer, which you can see at, here's a clip from the singing festival itself (thanks to Estonian Television. Ltd.). The song is Ilus Maa which means simply "beautiful land".

P.S. Isn't the Estonian flag fantastic? Blue, black, and white.

May 2, 2008

POSTCARD: James & the Giant Missile

My good friend James is a true traveler and passionate historian, as well as a delicious writer. He just got back from Turkmenistan, so I asked for a snippet.

The twenty-foot torpedo-shaped bombshell in the courtyard, ominously pointing at the chicken coop, admittedly, unnerved me a bit. Somehow I had missed this rather prominent piece of lawn decor while being swept, with effusive Turkmen hospitality, into my host family’s cinder-block home the night I had arrived in Serdar*, Turkmenistan. It was only in the early dawn of the next morning that, bleary-eyed with jetlag and focused on finding the outhouse, I stumbled into the projectile. By the end of the week, however, I was as comfortable propping myself against the cool gray shell to read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or to scribble in my journal as I was picking my way through Serdar’s dusty back streets, dodging past the occasional lazy, shaggy camel, on my “commute” to School #34. No one in the neighborhood seemed concerned by the bomb. There were, as I discovered soon enough, many more such relics strewn across the town’s low-level sprawl, remnants of a Soviet-era munitions plant. Empty threats transformed into items of strange, defiant beauty. Turkmenistan, despite the surreal legacies of Turkmenbashi’s megalomania, is not unlike those casings: hard and threatening at first glance, yet beneath the surface you find a surprising warmth and, yes, beauty.

-James Kessler

*Formerly Gyzylarbat, but, like everything else in this most reclusive of the ‘stans, it had been renamed for the former President-for-Life – “serdar”=leader.

May 1, 2008

How To Smuggle Cheese

I'm back from Paris all too quickly and yet everyone knows the best way to make a trip to France linger longer is with a bit of smelly cheese. The kind of cheese that you can't get here. And what kind is that? That would be the unpasteurized (raw milk) kind which the FDA says is bad for our bodies (but keep on drinking those bright blue slurpees). Smuggling food into the US is really easy but for those who've never tried it, here's a few pointers:

1. Buy the stinkiest, rawest Camembert you can, preferably from the town of Camembert in Normandy.
2. Wrap it in foil, but only right before you pack.
3. Bury the foil-wrapped cheese into your smelliest dirty clothes; socks are best. Close up your suitcase and check the bag*
4. Check yes on the customs form when it asks whether you are bringing food into the country.
5. When asked by a United States customs official if you are carrying food, merrily respond: "Why yes, look at these lovely chocolates I got in Duty Free!"
6. Pass through, go home, unwrap your cheese and pop it in the fridge.

OR . . .

7. Hide the cheese in your friend's suitcase and let them deal with it.

*If you've only got a carry on, then get the cheese shrink-wrapped or vacuum-packed. Remember though, don't leave it too long. A good cheese needs air to breathe.