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Saturday, December 6, 2014

By Request....The Three Most Bizarre Places I've Lived

Links: A. Welcome To Banjul, The Gambia
           B. Wikitravel Guide For Pristina, Kosovo
           C. Nuevo Laredo, Mexico...Still Open

Let me be clear, I have no intentions of turning my blog into a travelogue, but I received a number of very polite requests for a commentary on some of the "less-than-predictable" places where I have lived, and I enjoy mixing things up a bit.  In the near future you can expect a few more guest bloggers and more focus on "Mukhabarat, Baby!" as we get closer to publication.

Banjul, the capital city of The Gambia, formerly known as Bathurst in its colonial form, is one of the most bizarre, fascinating places I ever been.  I was fortunate to spend a little over a month in Banjul, which as far as I'm concerned qualifies me as a one-time resident.  I'm attempting to keep this post limited to one paragraph for each city, so lets get started.  Banjul is a port city of about 31,000 souls and is bordered to the north and south by lovely beaches.  It's my understanding that a few hotels have opened up and that a large-scale resort may be in the future (besides the Laico Atlantique and the ubiquitous Sheraton).  Banjul has very few actual tourist attractions.  The "Arch 22", built to commemorate the coup of 22 July 1994, is more of a landmark than a tourist attraction, but the Albert Market is loads of fun.  Its much the same as other seaport African markets, and the people of Banjul seem to always be laughing.  Fish, fish, and more fish, caught by locals, can be purchased alongside delectable fruits and fresh vegetables.  At the time I was living in a nice house with four other Americans, and we had no idea what we were going to eat for dinner until we had visited the market.  Traffic is a unique experience, as Banjul is one of those cities (like Pristina) which is full of what I call "home-made cars".  You have no idea the limits of human ingenuity until you have been to Africa.  Cars are keeping running....forever.  I've seen wooden wheels on a Toyota, and a satellite dish serving as the roof for a VW combi.  Gambians are experts at attaching and adapting small motors to bicycles and creating mopeds.  Real bicycles are everywhere, and car horns beep incessantly.  But we are talking about a city of 31,000, so it never became a nuisance.  Interestingly enough, I can't recall ever seeing an accident or a broken-down vehicle.  My favorite part of Banjul is "Old City", which is where you will see what is left of the colonial structures that the Brits built.  Most of the buildings are used for business purposes up front and on the ground floor, and for living quarters elsewhere.  Fortunately Banjul is a small city, because banks are few and far between.  Banjul's size also meant that you were never that far from a policeman or the U.S. Embassy.  The Gambia itself is a bizarrely shaped nation, consisting of a few miles inland on the north and south banks of the River Gambia.  To make things even more odd, The Gambia is quite a long country, following the path of the river for hundreds of miles inland.  Banjul has a decent number of restaurants and more than enough discos, so its not difficult finding ways to stay occupied.

Pristina, Kosovo is a very old city.  It is multi-cultural in the extreme.  For over five hundred years it was an Ottoman (Muslim) city, then it became the capital of a province of Serbia (Greek Orthodox), and now it is the capital of a new nation of ethnic Albanians (non-observant Muslims).  Although ninety percent of the population are ethnic Albanian, they consider themselves to be, first and foremost, Kosovars.  The city itself lies in a bit of a valley, with moderately rising mountains to the north and south.  Pristina has many mosques, but it is also home to a large Catholic Church and a Greek Orthodox parish.  I regularly attended Mass at the Catholic Church.  It was the only religious institution that I observed which was consistently in use.  Pristina is a very young city, with a large and vocal University.  It is also stuffed to the gills with Europeans and Americans working for one NGO or another.  The city is impossible to navigate without a few weeks of practice.  Many of the streets are not identified, and some of the roads get very narrow without warning.  Because of all of the new construction (the war has been over for fifteen years, yet people live their lives as if it ended yesterday), the city is incredibly dusty.  The roads are a complete nightmare on axles, but I did always manage to arrive at my destination.  The restaurants in Pristina are great.  I'm no a "foo-foo" eater, so for me, a great restaurant is a place that serves pizza, French Fries and dessert.  For many years, Pristina, like Kosovo in general, was inundated with soldiers all speaking different languages.  The universally understood grumblings of empty stomachs resulted in small restaurants popping up everywhere.  I'm pleased to say that Kosovars pride themselves on hospitality and cleanliness, so the food was reasonable and filling, and the surroundings were clean.  I have been informed that Pristina still has an impressive number of eating establishments, but nothing compared to 2000 and 2001.  Just outside of Pristina is the monument of Gazimestan, where Slobodan Milosevic basically declared war on the Albanians of Kosovo during a speech in 1989.  its also called "Kosovo Polje", which translated means "field of the blackbirds".  For history buffs, it is the location of an ancient battle (1389) between the Serbs and Ottoman Turks, which resulted in five hundred years of Turkish authority.  Here is my little secret to you.  Just down the road from Gazimestan (on the left), is a courtyard surrounding a house and what appears to be some sort of Muslim Mausoleum (there used to be a road sign identifying the Tomb of Ottoman Sultan Murad I.  You see, during the aforementioned battle, a Serbian soldier pretending to be dead until the Sultan passed by.  He then jumped up and stabbed Sultan Murad I, who died later that day.  So even though the Ottomans won the battle, they lost their Sultan.  He body was interred in Kosovo Polje where it rests to this day.  The same ehnic Turkish family has been watching over Murat for centuries.  For a donation you can see the coffin, his regalia, his Turban, and other accoutrements of war.  Its obvious that Murad gets very few visitors (the groundskeeper explained that during holiday periods in Turkey, many visitors come to pay respects...the government in Ankara has been paying for the upkeep of the Tomb for decades.

Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico is one the largest cities south of the Rio Grande.  It never seems to get the same attention as Juarez, Matamoros or Tijuana, but economically speaking it has become one of the most important cities in Mexico.  How important is Nuevo Laredo?  In the decade following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, the world's two most powerful (arguably) narco-trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, decided it was worth going to war over.  Nuevo Laredo (NL) had become a very important transportation node in the shipment of narcotics into the United States.  The conflict between the two cartels destroyed entire sections of NL, and turned others into empty wastelands, including the usually vibrant tourist area directly across the main international bridge.  In recent months business has started to return, and I have no doubt that with time, the once-popular, thriving tourist district will return.  When I was a young, very green Federal Agent working on the bridges, I had no issues hoping across to Mexico to see my dentist, buy mescal, or take visitors to dinner and clubbing. Economically, NL flourished because of it was a border city.  During the day, the import/export lots were constantly busy, with customs folks on top of every activity.  The bridges were alive with both Customs and Immigration business, and the tourist district, which stretched more than two miles into Mexico, was always full of folks from Iowa, or Pennsylvania, buying giant sombreros and tequila.  The American factories outside of NL which were producing tennis shoes and t-shirts at embarrassingly low wages (in Mexico the wages and the benefits were above average) and expanding the overall economic portfolio of the community.  I loved living in Laredo, which allowed me the luxury of accessing Mexico and NL at my convenience, and always being able to hop back across to the safety of Uncle Sam when I was ready.  As a young man, my old college buddies insisted on going across and dancing the night away at the great bars and discos in the tourist section.  As for restaurants, every self-respecting Laredoan knows that "El Rancho" in NL is the best place to eat (famous for its Cabrito).  And no trip to NL would be complete (for young men at least) without a visit to the infamous "Boystown", or "La Zona Rosa", or "La Zona de Tolerencia".  Boystown was a roughly two-block section of the city, located very close to the rail and bus depots, which was surrounded by a ten-foot concrete wall, and had only one vehicular entrance and exit.  Inside the wall were a number of bars lining two or three streets, with a row of small rooms built either directly behind the bars, or in the cheaper area, directly up against the street.  The professional ladies (and also a number of "pretend ladies") would meet the clients in the bars, get them to buy lots of overpriced beer and tequila, and then disappear to the rooms in the back (which also served as the living quarters for these sad ladies) to finish business.  In the cheaper section towards the back, the ladies (and underage girls and boys), would stand in their doorways, giving the customers who were driving by, a good idea of what was for sale.  In hindsight, I'm ashamed that I included Boystown in my list of tourist destinations.  My perspective has changed dramatically.  But it continues to be a thriving part of NL's economy.  On the weekends the parking lot is full of cars with U.S. plates.  During the week it is usually the NAFTA Mexican truckers and freight yard employees who keep La Zona humming.

I have mixed emotions about all three of the cities we discussed in this post.  I was exposed to all levels of human degredation while in these communities.  With that said, I also saw examples of kindness, generosity and a willingness to love.  A bit of everything, I guess its fair to say.

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