Friday, July 29, 2011

Very Superstitious

An interesting thing about living abroad is the way weird cultural idiosyncrasies that seem so foreign and strange can turn around and make you examine the weird parts of your own culture.

A few weeks ago Aleks, one of my colleagues from Serbia, told me how she would never leave both the door and the window open (something I do often in my office on hot days). In Serbia, they have this concept of a "deadly draft" (she was unsure how to translate it) - allowing wind to flow through the house is bad for the health. As we joked about how this superstition may have come about, one of our Slovak colleagues agreed that the deadly draft is very much a thing here in Slovakia as well.

A quick internet search finds a lot of Americans living or traveling in Europe experiencing this same superstition in Poland, Germany and France.

Now, I'm a firm believer in science (the body of knowledge that has been discovered using the scientific method), but I'll still make sure to put on a hat and a warm coat on a cold day to keep from catching a cold. However, it seems that there's not really any scientific proof that cold temperatures cause colds, a commonly held belief in our country. If you think about it, it makes sense - why would being cold weaken the immune system enough to let the cold bugs win any more than running a marathon or not getting enough sleep? All of these things are taxing on our immune systems. From the National Institutes of Health:

"Although a connection exists between the number of cases of the common cold and the fall and winter seasons, there is no experimental evidence that exposure to cold temperatures increases the chances that you will get a cold."

However, when people are told something their whole lives, the brain will come up with ways to justify previously-held beliefs and be more open to evidence that agrees with these beliefs (which is why you're probably frantically searching for this NY Times article). For example, it took a night or two of Googling before one of my Korean colleagues was willing to admit that maybe people can't die if they go to sleep at night with an electric fan on in their room (Korean fan death - it's a thing).

This all might seem kind of silly and harmless, but superstition and belief in non-scientific explanations of our world have contributed to ignorance about the AIDS epidemic (remember South African President Jacob Zuma saying he wouldn't get HIV as long as he took a shower after sex?) and resistance to vaccination campaigns that could save thousands of lives.

I'm not about to go crusading around the world, making people stand in the rain without a coat, sneaking fans into the bedrooms of Koreans or breaking windows open in Slovakia, but I do think the world could do itself a favor by taking the advice of Stevie Wonder: superstition ain't the way.

Friday, July 22, 2011


So, a few weeks ago, I went biking in Austria, where I had the pleasure to meet some of my classmate Isabella's cool German friends. One of Isabella's friends, Hannah, invited me to come to an annual festival in her city of Munich called Kocherlball.

Kocherlball, the way it was explained to me, was what the servants in Munich used to do to have fun. They wanted to have a summer ball like the rich people they served, but they couldn't do it in the evening because that's when they had to work. Instead, maids, cooks and other servants would get up early in the morning and eat, drink and dance. Today, people in the region come and recreate this, some dressing up like servants, others in traditional Bavarian dirndl and leiderhosen. Being a proud owner of leiderhosen, and loving the Kocherlball trifecta of eating, drinking and dancing, I had to go!

I took a leisurely series of trains from Bratislava to Munich on Saturday, arriving around 6pm. I'm very proud of myself for making all the train changes and mastering the public transportation systems of both Vienna and Munich sans-smartphone, no problem. I love the future, but I think I would have survived the 20th century no problem.

Isabella (who had driven in from Geneva) and Hannah were enjoying chocolates and the evening sky while sitting on Hannah's balcony when I met up with them. We put on our evening best (you'd be surprised how many people actually wear leiderhosen on a regular basis in Munich - they're not just for Oktoberfest!), and walked to a biergarten in the city center.

Our evening at the beer garden (it's called Augustiner Brau, for anyone interested in visiting Munich) already made my trip worth it. We sat out in a giant wooded area with lots of picnic tables, ordered some Augustiners and tried some of Munich's tastier dishes, which included lots of chicken and other tasty meat things. The atmosphere was amazing - the trees overhead added to the cool calm ambience of the warm Bavarina night. And of course, I got to wear leiderhosen.

The next morning, we woke up at 4:30am and took the subway to the English Garden in Munich. We joined a growing group of revelers walking down the grassy paths of the park toward the Chinese tower, where the ball is held every year. Although the event isn't as large as Oktoberfest (it isn't ever advertised or anything), there were still a few thousand people there apparently, almost all Germans.

We met up with some of Hannah's friends who had gotten up even earlier and had gotten a table, and we ordered some breakfast pastries and sausages. Dancing soon commenced, with some people on the main stage teaching us the steps. We danced Bavarian variations on the polka, the waltz and the quadrille. As my luck would have it, Isabella was raised in Austria, so she had all this dancing stuff in her blood. She also happened to be the one who taught us all how to dance in preparaton for the Viennese ball earlier this year, so we had a great time dancing in the crowded area next to the stage.

The whole event began to wind down at 10:00am, so after walking through the park a bit more, Hannah, Isabella and I put down for a nap at her apartment. I woke up at 4:00pm and it was raining, so I kind of missed the train on exploring Munich a bit more. Luckily, I didn't miss my actual train and I arrived back in Bratislava late Sunday night.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The poor left out in the cold during Central Asia’s winters

This is a piece that I co-wrote with my boss for my summer internship at UNDP. Read the original post on the United Nations Development Programme Europe & CIS Blog.

Nobody likes paying higher prices, for anything. In January 2010, when the government of Kyrgyzstan doubled household electricity and heating tariffs, it helped spark a revolution. In neighbouring Tajikistan, up to 1 million people spend much of the winter without reliable electricity supplies. Winter electricity supplies have become increasingly erratic in Kyrgyzstan as well. How can funds be raised to build power plants and transmission lines needed to address these issues, if not through higher tariffs? And if the poorest and most vulnerable households in Central Asia are not even connected to central electricity grids—but instead rely on coal and firewood to get through the winter—do tariff levels even matter?

Recent research by UNDP sheds new light on these questions. Based on analysis of official household survey data in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, research shows that access to electricity and gas supplies has declined since 2007—even as governments in both countries have raised tariffs, attracted foreign investment into the power sector, and boosted small hydropower and other renewables. In Tajikistan, rural areas now account for only around10 percent of electricity consumption—even though three quarters of the population lives in rural areas. In Kyrgyzstan, 78 percent of low-income households in 2008 were reporting interruptions in electricity service on a weekly (at least) basis.

Somewhat surprisingly, these data indicate that the shares of household budgets claimed by energy and communal service bills in these countries are at or below the 15 to 20 percent affordability thresholds commonly used by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This conundrum is also being investigated in a working paper (pdf) by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The disconnect between the seeming affordability of tariffs and widespread energy poverty may be due to the fact that many poor households in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan do not have access to these services in the first place. It may also be due to the fact that cut-offs for non-payment of electricity bills are still a rarity. On the other hand, many in Central Asia continue to nurture Soviet-era beliefs that the state should supply electricity and water “for free”—particularly since both countries are rich in water and hydro-electric potential. This may explain why the large increases in household electricity and water tariffs that have taken hold after 2007 may be hard to swallow —particularly in Kyrgyzstan.

How are households coping with winter electricity shortages? According to these data, nearly half of Kyrgyzstan’s low-income households are relying on coal for winter heating. Half of Tajikistan’s households heat with firewood, cotton stalks, and dung. In addition to exacerbating the country’s severe deforestation problems, these heating patterns pose household health risks.

These studies also found that social assistance—which was significantly increased in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 in order to shield poor households from the effects of tariff hikes—are unable to address household energy insecurity. In Kyrgyzstan, these benefits disproportionately favour non-poor households, a distortion also found in Tajikistan by the World Bank (pdf). In Tajikistan, where benefits are very low (only $2 per month on average), deep reforms of the social policy architecture are now being piloted. Better targeting of larger social benefits, as well as the expansion of off-grid local energy solutions (like small hydropower plants), seem to be part of the answer.

At present, Central Asia is suffering from summer heat and drought, not from winter energy shortages. But because hydropower dominates national energy balances in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, this summer’s water shortages could have an impact on next winter’s energy supplies—particularly for Tajikistan. In any case, these problems seem unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future.

What do you think? What are the best solutions for Central Asia’s water and energy challenges?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hijinks in Hungary

After another wonderfully productive week at UNDP Bratislava, my friend and fellow intern Timi again offered to host us in her homeland of Hungary, this time in the countryside. Looking back on the last trip, who could turn down that offer?

I met up with Timi and another intern, Hyun-Young, in Budapest, where we took a train to a small village on Lake Balaton called Badacsonytomaj. We arrived in the village around 10pm, which is a bit late to start anything, but it was 30C outside and we were in the mood for adventure. With this spirit, we set our bags down in the apartment we rented and set out to explore.

We were unfortunately turned away by guards at several privately own beaches (they were closed), but we were able to find a little path through some high grass that led to a dock which extended into the lake. Some fishermen were sleeping on the dock, but that didn't stop us from climbing into the dark, calm water of Lake Balaton for a late night dip! Floating on my bake in the dark lake and gazing at the clear, starry sky might be my favorite memory of the weekend.

Following the swim, we stopped by a local village bar to try Palinka, a tasty Hungarian liquor, and then we sat out on a bench in front of the town's church just enjoying the night air.

Around midnight, two cars drove up to the church, which was strange because the town had been pretty quiet and empty. We greeted these new arrivals and after a conversation, we slowly realized that these guys were members of the Hungarian rock band Quimby and they were headlining a concert the next day (a concert we had been planning on attending). They invited us to a party at the winery where the concert was going to happen, so we hopped in the cars and went!

I'm trying to keep this post short, so if you want details on my night of partying with a famous Hungarian rock band, ask me in person.

We got back to the apartment very late (or early) and discovered at the doorstep that Hyun-Young had lost the keys somewhere on our trip. Too tired to deal with scouring the streets of Badacsonytomaj, we put ourselves to bed in lounge chairs in the garden. The next morning, we called the landlady of the apartment to apologize for losing the keys and she thought it was hilarious that we had spent the night in the garden!

On Saturday, we spent the morning napping (in the house) and then mep up with two of Timi's good friends, Judith and Kitti. The rest of the weekend wasn't as eventful as the first 12 hours of our time in Badacsonytomaj, but it was filled with lots of beach lounging, lake swimming, trips back to our dock, Hungarian fish soup, a fun concert, some delicious wine and exploring the Balaton coast on half-broken rental bicycles.

On our way out of Badacsonytomaj on Sunday, the five of us stopped to take a photo in front of the town church where we had relaxed the first night. I approached a man lounging nearby to ask him to take our picture, which he did with enthusiastic flair. While taking our picture, he happened to mention that two nights earlier, he had found a set of keys in front of the church and had placed them on the church's Virgin Mary statue.

What do you know, Mary of Badacsonytomaj was holding onto our lost keys for us!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Wachau Bicycle Tour

This last weekend, I joined my friend Isabella for a bicycle tour through the Wachau Valley to celebrate her birthday. Here's Isabella!

I met up with her and her friends (all extremely great people), who had come in from everywhere - Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Geneva (Isabella) and Bratislava (me) to spend a wonderful day biking by the Danube River. I had no idea how wonderful it would be.

After catching a train to Melk, we rented our bikes and set out down a trail that followed the Danube (Donau) as it meandered from Melk to Krems, and eventually on to Vienna and Bratislava. This is a giant monastery in Melk, famous for its reference in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (among other reasons).

Austria is beautiful. Every time I come to this country, I become more and more enamoured of it. I may just move here some day.

The tour was interrupted by multile schnapps breaks - the region is famous for its apricots (marillen), and therefore also its apricot schnapps and dumplings.

It sprinkled on and off throughout the day, which gave us good reason to take some wonderful eating and drinking breaks at little taverns and restaurants along the 35km trail from Melk to Krems.

That evening, we took the train back to Vienna where we shared a dinner at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the Viennese skyline. This might have been the best weekend I've had (or will have) all summer.