Happy Birthday Ocean

Family Celebration

Ocean turned 14 years old last weekend. She invited friends for a sleepover on Saturday and we had a little ceremony on Sunday evening. I was the family Uber driver, shuttling kids around the city. I don’t mind this as it is an opportunity to talk with them and spend time with them. With teenagers, parents need to take what they can get.

Oliver Plays First Game of the Season

It was a special Saturday for me because for the first time in a long time, I was able to watch one of my children compete in an interscholastic sports event. Due to COVID, we did not have interscholastic sports last year. This year with all of the employees with vaccinations and many of our parents, we are going ahead and offering games within Tashkent. We are still not competing internationally, but it is really nice to have other schools come to play against our students. TIS students also played for the first time on our artificial grass field. Everyone was excited for sports to be back!

Oliver played in the second game of the day as he did not make the varsity A squad. In Central Asia due to the size of schools, we only play 7 aside soccer instead of the full 11. The Varsity A won the first game 4-1 and Oliver’s team lost 1-2. Oliver plays center back on defense. He is still learning the game, especially at the higher level of high school.

Family Journal: September 18, 2021

Breakfast at Breadly

September is a month of beautiful weather in Tashkent with warm, sunny days and cool, star-filled nights. Every Saturday morning I lead a training run of the cross country teams. After the run, we usually go to breakfast at Breadly, a nice cafe and bakery with three stores in the city. I loved talking with my wife and daughter who ran with us. She will be one of the top runners on the middle school girls’ team this year.

It is fascinating to see how Uzbek culture will develop after so many years in the Russian sphere of influence. The Russians have been in Central Asia since the mid-1800s and Uzbekistan has been independent for only 30 years. I am keeping my eye on the slow rise of Islam. The first president of Uzbekistan followed the Soviet model and suppressed expression of religion. The new president is allowing more freedoms, including in the religious sphere. I saw the other day that girls can legally wear headscarves to school. I live in the more Russian side of the city so don’t see many covered women in my neighborhood. However, when I walk my dog near the Samarquand Darvoza, I see many more as you can see in the photos above. I would estimate maybe a 1/4 or 1/3 of women cover their hair. The contrast between secular styles of dress and religious dress is stark, as you can see with the two women waiting for a taxi in the third photo. There are also many mosques being built or renovated around the city. I wonder what it will be like here over the next 20-30 years?

I finish this post with the pop-up stores that appear all over the city. The guy below just parks his Damas under a tree, sets out his groceries and starts to try to make sales, almost like a kids lemonade stand in the USA. I would love to know the economics of these vendors that do not have official stalls in the neighborhood markets and do not have buildings to sell their goods.

Family Journal: September 17, 2021

Oliver defends this week in varsity soccer practice

My heart was filled with joy watching my son Oliver play soccer this week at practice. Our school is re-starting the interscholastic sports program. We shut things down in March of 2020 right after the basketball season and all last year had limited sports offerings. I forgot how moving it is for a parent to watch their child play a team sport. Oliver made the varsity team as a 10th grader! His strengths are he is a tough, physical defender, good stamina and strong legs. He is still learning football tactics and I look forward to this season to see how he develops as a player. I’ll be blogging a lot about the team this autumn!

One of the daily traffic accidents I come upon in my travels in the city.

I am fascinated by driving culture in Tashkent, or I should say the lack of driving culture in Tashkent. In the USSR and under the first Uzbek president Karimov, few Uzbeks owned cars and there really is a lack of understanding of the dangers of driving. Men are so proud of their ability to own a Chevrolet Spark or Matiz and they act like they are in the Fast and Furious series, racing recklessly around the city. Many cars move as unsafe speeds and their lane changes are haphazard. Intersections especially are dangerous, with cars speeding through yellow/red lights and multiple lanes of cars attempting to make left turns. There is a lot of education and enforcement of traffic laws that needs to happen before Tashkent can be a safe place to drive. One executive of a foreign auto company here in Uzbekistan told me that their employees are not allowed to drive and must have drivers because the high risk of accidents. It is the most dangerous thing about living in Uzbekistan. I am amazed at the number of collisions and accidents I encounter while driving through the city. Literally, every day, I see the aftermath of a collision.

My wife Nadia and I are celebrating our 22nd wedding anniversary this weekend. We had a delightful evening by the pool last night with Ocean, Asli and Obi. The weather is cooling down and our plov fire pit is a cozy accompaniment to our nights. We had a nice night together and I am so lucky I met Nadia and she said yes.

Latest Reading: Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Patrick Radden Keefe is an engaging storyteller and I really enjoyed his deep dive into the Sackler family. They are infamous as the owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that made Oxycotin, the addictive opiate that ravaged many American families. Keefe starts with the original three brothers in the 1940s and follows three generations of the family up to the present. I was angered at the greed of the family and their behavior reminded me of the HBO series Succession.

The real genius of the family was Arthur Sackler who ran an advertising agency and started the pharmaceutical advertising industry. His key innovation was to market drugs at physicians. His legacy is the American pharmacuetical industry that generates billions of dollars for “Big Pharma”. He bought Purdue Pharma, a small drug company in Connecticut for his two brothers. The brothers were also big into museums and the arts, and donated millions of dollars to universities and art galleries around the world. Keefe told the fascinating story of the three brothers lives, which included multiple marriages, a world-wide empire of businesses and even their own private warehouse and gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Arthur made the bulk of his fortune through Valium and later generations through Oxycontin. Both drugs caused a lot of tragedy and addiction. The family mostly insulated themselves from the reports of the wave of addiction and death caused by Oxycotin the past 20-30 years. It was sickening to know the billions of dollars the family made off of Oxycontin. The law did finally catch up with them, but not before the family used their vast wealth to buy off the Federal Drug Administration and federal judges to avoid jail. They also took out much of the fortune from Purdue Pharma before it went bankrupt. The penalties the company paid to victims was tiny compared to how much wealth individual families members took away from the company. They should be ashamed at what they did and I don’t understand their greed. No one needs billions of dollars to live a happy and productive life. They are a disgusting family. I am also upset at the FDA that they would approve such a strong opiate. They were bought off and cajoled by the Sackler law team and should be ashamed of themselves as well. For many individuals in positions of power, the lure of immense wealth outweighed their ethics.

The family is shamed and many had to leave America. Many of the institutions they donated to are taking their name off their buildings. However, they should have had to give up the vast fortunes derived from oxycontin and in my opinion, many of them should have served jail time. I guess the lesson is if you have enough money and influence, you can get away with starting an epidemic. I would compare the Sacklers to the cartel families like Pablo Escobar, The Cali Cartel and many of the Mexican drug families. To know that your fortune comes from valium and oxycontin, two drugs that are highly addictive, and be able to live with yourself is reprehensible. I may be easy for me to judge them because I never faced the opportunity of generational wealth to look past the harmful consequences on society.

I highly recommend this book if you want to more about one of the single biggest causes of the opiate epidemic in the USA.

Camping in the Chimgan Mountains

Ocean and Oliver pose in front of the Greater Chimgan Mountains

We celebrated Independence Day by camping in the beautiful mountains in the Ugam-Chatkal National Park. I picked out a ridge overlooking the town of Burchmullo with a spectacular view of the Chimgan Mountains. I discovered the spot while cycling last year and thought to myself it would be the perfect camping spot. It was an otherworldly experience with the spectacular views of the setting sun on the peaks, a night sky full of stars and a cool breeze with no mosquitos. My wife and kids are not into camping but I made them go. We were supposed to camp with friends on the Amirsoy Resort grounds, but it was too much of a hassle to get to the camping spot. Uzbekistan has plenty of beautiful spaces to camp, so we decided to set up camp on the ridge. Everyone was grumbling about the livestock droppings and thorny grasses. However, after setting up the tents and chairs and when the sun started to set, the evening turned magical. We all experienced the majestic beauty around us and it lightened everyone’s mood. The kids ended up having a great time!

Obi had his little play area between the tents

Three times in the evening we heard howling dogs. It scared Ocean and I really liked being in a tent in the wild with “danger” around us. The pack of wild dogs never materialized and we had a decent sleep. In the morning it was actually a bit cold as we packed up and headed back to the city. The best aspect of life in Uzbekistan for me is the outdoor beauty of deserts and mountains and camping is the best way to fully experience it. We’ll definitely camp again, hopefully one of the weekends coming up we’ll give it another try.

I forgot how many constellations there are and it was cool to point them out to the kids. Ocean even saw her first shooting star! We forgot to bring pillows and our gas ran out so no morning coffee, but other than that, it was a perfect day in my opinion. Camping is another way to trap teenagers so they have to talk to you. We had a lot of laughs! I can’t wait to go again.

Walking the Sukok Reserve

Obi leads me home

I took Obi a couple of weeks ago to the Sukok Forest Reserve, which is located in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, near the city of Parkent. It is the closest the mountains get to Tashkent and only about an hour’s drive away. The US Forest Service and Uzbek government are working on developing the idea of reserves/parks in Uzbekistan and this is one of the first projects. I went late on a Sunday afternoon and parked my car in a village close by to the entrance. I didn’t realize that the entrance to the reserve had a gate and thought it was a private farm, so walked around the reserve through an adjacent ravine. It was still super beautiful and with the setting sun, it was a refreshing way to end my weekend. I like this development of reserves/parks. I think livestock over graze in the mountains and it will be good to see eliminating this in some areas to see what becomes of it.

View of Chimgan Mountains

On my way back to my car, I took a different way and was looking for a shortcut path to the village creek. I ended up at a rancher’s house and just to show the friendliness of the locals, when I asked them for directions to the path, they sent their daughter, who was probably age 10 with me to show me where it started. They trusted a total stranger and she escorted me about 50-75 meters away from them and she pointed down a narrow, steep path. We were quite a distance from the parents. I thanked her and carefully made my way down the windy path. I guess the lack of serious crime in the culture puts people at ease.

the path home

Family Journal: September 1, 2021

Somsa!

One of my favorite foods of Uzbekistan is the somsa which is a savory, baked pastry. Traditionally the Uzbeks fill them with beef, chicken, pumpkin, spinach or cheese. On the left is a pumpkin somsa and on the right is a different kind of pastry filled with beef. On Tuesday I was waiting at a government office with the International Relations Officer to get a tax document for the school. I caught the aroma coming from the Doppi Cafe located on the premises of the office (good idea) and headed over there for a delicious mid-morning breakfast. The sauce was a spicy tomato sauce and it hit the spot.

Running Trail at Eko Park

Yesterday was Uzbekistan Independence Day and we are on a 5-day vacation. I organized a cross country running team training session at Ecopark. I ran 5 laps at an average pace of 5:59 / kilometer. The last lap was the fastest at 5:43 and the slowest was the penultimate lap at 6:12. I am trying to get to a 5:40 pace for a 10 kilometer run. Tashkent’s California-style weather is ideal in September and we had a nice cup of coffee afterwards at a cafe located in the park. City officials promote environmental awareness, hence the name of the park and thanks to funding by the Mitsubishi corporation, they were able to develop a nice green space in the city.

Nadia and I did a few shopping errands and house cleaning (holiday – no domestic help!) and I did a bit of school work. In the evening, we hosted friends Neta and Dafna for dinner and pool time for the kids. They have four young children, including the new born above. It was nice to have kids again running through the house and Obi was so excited. Babies are so precious and we all enjoyed holding the little guy. Nadia and I are in a different stage of parenthood with our oldest at university and the other two in middle school and high school. I feel we are always trying to find creative ways for them to spend time with us. In the old days, we were the center of their world. It is natural for them to pull away from parents in adolescence and I am OK with it. I do wish however, that it would be easier for us to get them to do stuff with mom and dad!

Chilten Canyon and Soviet Uranium Mine

I went on an adventurous hike with long-time guides Boris and Vladimir near the mountain village of Yangiabad. We explored the Chilten River Canyon and as is typical on a Boris hike, it was a full-body workout. We started the morning by taking the upper trails, looking down upon a series of waterfalls cascading down the canyon. We walked about 3 kilometers on steep, narrow trails before moving down below. We climbed down and through the Chilten River, stopping for lunch and swimming as we went along. Scrambling over the rocks provided exercise for the whole body and I admire Vlad and Boris, both in their 70s, that they still can do these somewhat risky hikes and trails. The water temperature in late August was perfect and the views of the rocks, grasses/trees and blue sky were soothing for my soul.

Soviet Uranium Mine Tunnel

We had a bonus added to the day when we were joined by Elena, who is from the town of Yangiabad. The town during the Soviet times, was a “secret city” because of the nearby uranium mine. She led a tour around the town and even brought us up to one of the entrances to the mine. Authorities had closed the mine, but the locals opened it up and there were a couple of guys there. I am not sure what can be found in the long tunnels that can be found all around the town and into the hillsides. The tunnel we toured goes for approximately 4 kilometers and is full of side tunnels and drop-offs. Quite dangerous in my opinion. I was reading about the old uranium mines on native American reservations in northern Arizona and the radioactivity problems. I need to bring a Geiger Counter up with me the next time I go up there. A short visit is not dangerous, but long-term exposure, especially the dust, can have health effects. The temperature in the shaft was cool, probably in the 60s and reminded me of the abandoned iron ore tunnels and shafts of my home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Looking Down from the Mine Entrance to the Road to Yangiabad

It was such a nice day and I always feel refreshed after a day in the outdoors. A special thanks to Elena for showing us her village and the mine.

Family Journal: August 14, 2021

Eko Park – Tashkent

We completed Teacher Work Week (we need a better name for the prep week) and are ready to receive students next week. I am trying to get back into long distance running and am trying out different routes in the city in the early mornings. Saturday we ran the 1km loop at Eko Park. The track is in good shape and provides enough shade and green to make it a pleasant run. I find it a bit tedious going around in a 1km circle, but working on my speed and then combine it with running outside of the park makes it tolerable. After a week of running, I am starting to feel my groove again and recovering from the bike accident in June. The stretching of yoga has helped and need to do more of it.

Nadia admires the oak trees that line many streets in Tashkent

We went for breakfast at Breadly afterwards and then shopping at Kanishka, a high-end leather shop on the boulevard of the bakery. I bought a new wallet and computer bag, as my current bag is over 20 years old and is falling apart. The prices for leather in Tashkent are inexpensive and hopefully, it will last as long as my last bag. I love walking in that part of the city close to NBU stadium. There are lots of mature trees and old apartment blocks with interesting facades. The Uzbek sunshine creates beautiful lighting. The extremely high temperatures of last week (100F+) are cooling this week and as I write this at 8:30 AM, it is a perfect 72F. I drove Oliver to his friends and back, did some grocery shopping and took Obi for a walk in the late afternoon.

I appreciate life in Tashkent and am trying to capture moments in my regular day. There is a small bakery and somsa restaurant (middle) that I walk by on my way to school in the mornings. We buy bread there and when it is fresh and hot, delicious. I spotted this car hauling plastic and paper for recycling. Because of the low incomes in Uzbekistan, plastic and paper recycling is viable and you see people collecting in garbage areas all over the city. A Luli (Roma) family was in the car (right) and it is a vital source of income for many Luli. The Soviet era apartments are quite small and people need to be creative to maximize the space. I liked the bicycle storage in the windows of the third floor.

I end this post with a photo of the Sacred Heart Cathedral (aka The Polish Church) at night. I usually only see it in the day and didn’t know that they light it up in the evenings.

Sacred Heart Cathedral