Kashgar, the Khunjerab Pass, Eid ul-Fitr, and the Way Back

Kashgar, alas and alack, did not impress. I built the concept, the wispy words of friends and former blog posts describing that something which lives in the storied culture of travelers from millennia ago to the present age as “Kashgar,” in my mind too much as a place completely different from China.  In many ways it does differ from the culture of its political overlord, but it’s also disappointingly clad in the same architecture and layout as other Chinese cities.  To make matters more depressing, the old town is under the ball and hammer in a classic example of Chinese “restoration.”

We got a room at the Chini Bagh, which used to be the British Consulate in Kashgar during the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  I thought we would go to Tashkurgan the following day, but we decided to stay in Kashgar to arrange better transportation opportunities and secure passage to Urumqi.  I gave my dirty clothes to be laundered, and it turned out to be 84 kuai – about five times higher than I ever paid to launder clothes at hotels in China.  Furthermore, the Chini Bagh’s service was generally awful, despite its reputation as one of the more famous hotels in Kashgar.

After eating at a local place, I used the Internet for an hour – had to stay fresh on the job search.  The next morning we secured the room for another night before embarking on some haphazard sightseeing.  Per the Lonely Planet’s one-size-fits-all recommendations, we taxied to a nice mausoleum, the Abakh Hoja Maziri,  and a livestock market with no livestock.  I also came down with a sore throat due to the inefficient, overpowered air conditioner in the hotel room.  It didn’t help that I drank a couple of delicious Sinkiang Dark beers in the cafe of the hotel, thus lulling my immune system into a relaxed state.

Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Glazed Tile Detail at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Construction Tools at the Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Restorative Construction Worker at Abakh Hoja Maziri
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque
Penitent outside Id Kah Mosque

In the afternoon we strolled around the half-rubble old town.  Historically (i.e. until about 2008) Kashgar’s Old Town was the largest intact authentic Silk Road town, dating from the days when it served as a vibrant hub for the many cultures that passed through its streets bearing all the goods one could want in Eurasia.  The extent to which it has been destroyed is painful to witness, and I think that it is exemplary of cultural-related development in modern China: demolish the real McCoy and put up a fake version of it.  The story unfolding in Kashgar’s old town ties together many of the themes of China’s “growing pains:” transition from old infrastructure to new, forced displacement of residents from traditional community spaces into new high-rise apartments, an overriding focus on municipal district-level quarterly GDP growth, the bizarre preference of Chinese tourists for “Disneyland” culture to authentic artifacts and places, and the central government’s efforts to exert control over restive minorities by undermining their shared cultural heritage.  Note that the images below are not unique to Kashgar; different versions of these scenes are found all over China.

A Hall of Doorways through Walls
A Hall of Doorways through Walls
You Can't Come In
You Can't Come In
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
The Neighborhood Path to Nowhere
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
Uighur Women Walking in the Old Neighborhood
A Silk Road Homefront
A Silk Road Homefront
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
What Happened to the Neighbors Out Back?
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China
Historic Neighborhood Restoration in the People's Republic of China

Since Kashgar was underwhelming, covered in nasty dust and we had a few days to kill before Eid ul-Fitr, we sought out transport to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border pass in the world at 4,693 meters – nearly as high as that low-oxygen, high-star count night at Nam Tso in Tibet.  We first sought the services of the folks at CITS, which has an office right next to the Chini Bagh.  Their price to see both Karakul Lake and the Pass was 1,700 RMB for the both of us – pretty expensive.  He called the border office in Tashkurgan to ask about foreigners getting to the border, and the officer told him that foreigners without a forward visa (to Pakistan) could not go up to the Pass.  This disappointed us, but we still wanted to get up into the scenic highlands of Tashkurgan.  The fellow who runs the cafe at the Chini Bagh offered to do the trip for only 1,000 RMB.  We sealed the deal, albeit without the Pass as a part of the package, and proceeded to eat WAY too much da pan ji and tasty yogurt at some place that night.

We awoke the next morning to leave for Tashkurgan at ten on the Karakoram Highway.  The driver pulled over to allow us to buy hot naan bread on the way, surprisingly tasty for breakfast.  We passed Karakol Lake about three hours into the journey; it is beautiful, but the weather was too cloudy for it to be really majestic.  After that, I fell asleep until at some point we had to get out of the taxi and present our passports at a police checkpoint.  In this part of Xinjiang, they also have the silly registration-checkpoint speed limit that Tibet has.  The road was badly washed out in some spots on the Highway.

Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Arnab on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway
Me on the Karakoram Highway

I awoke in Tashkurgan at 15:00, five hours after leaving Kashgar.  We lodged at the ubiquitous jiaotong bingguan or “traffic hotel” where we rested for 30 minutes, then got some laghmian for lunch.  Arnab and I sat around waiting on the driver for an hour or more (during which I burned through more of Team of Rivals) until he finally came down to the lobby and drove us to a couple of sites.  The river delta-meadow at the east end of Tashkurgan is beautiful and idyllic, ringed by massive mountain ranges.  This great peace of cool weather, clean(-ish) air and pastoral quiet was totally sullied when a family living in a concrete yurt there, no doubt spurred on by the presence of tourists, switched on the fake ethnic music.  It was as loud as a rock concert and echoed off all the mountains – and worst of all, the amplifier was pointed directly at the walkway into and out of the middle of the field, where we were strolling.  After we escaped that visual siren’s trap, we climbed up to the ancient fort ruins where I took some more landscape pictures. We then returned to the hotel, ate dinner including Arnab’s precious tudou si, and slept.  By the end of the day, we found out that we wold be able to see the Khunjerab Pass, and we agreed to pay 350 RMB extra to the driver for this purpose.

Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
Welcome to Tashkurgan Deceptively Pastoral Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
River in Tashkurgan Meadow
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
"Princess Castle" in Tashkurgan
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow
Tashkurgan River Delta Meadow

The next morning, the 9th of September, we left for the Khunjerab Pass.  The Karakoram Highway here rolls through amazing, epically beautiful scenery through a long straight valley set on either side by world-class mountain ranges, the Karakoram.  Tajiks abound in this part of China, especially in Tashkurgan and the southern valley.  To reach the Pass we had to pay ten kuai and turn in our passports at the customs station just south of Tashkurgan; this earned us a permit to move forward to, but not far beyond, the border.  Along the Highway we passed within about 20 km of Tajikistan, 80 km of Afghanistan, and 40 km of Kyrgyzstan.  One kilometer before the border with Pakistan, we stopped for what seemed like an hour – it was hard to tell since we were 4600 m up and our heads hurt.  When enough tourists queued, the border army police opened the gate, one of the army men sat in our taxi, and we drove up to the border itself at the pass, which is quite wide and long.  The Chinese road is paved right up to the line itself, at which point it abruptly ends.  The Pakstani side of the Highway is a rough dirt track.  We stood in Kashmir, currently controlled by Pakistan, for a bit.  I had to wear Arnab’s coat since it was so cold up there and I was not prepared.  Some Pakistani border guards came and we shook hands with them.  One of them said Arnab “looked Pakistani,” which made him laugh ironically since he’s of Indian ancestry.  After maybe ten minutes, we were shooed back into the cars by the Chinese police.

The Border Permit
The Border Permit
Station South of Tashkurgan
Station South of Tashkurgan
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Goats on the Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
Karakoram Highway Ascent to the Khunjerab Pass
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Highest Border Gate in the World
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
The Border of Kashmir and Xinjiang
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Arnab in "Occupied Kashmir"
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Me Straddling Pakistani Kashmir and Chinese Xinjiang
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
Arnab and Me with Pakistani Border Guard
The Sign Says it All
The Sign Says it All

Thus, on the fifth anniversary of my joining AIESEC, I visited the highest border crossing in the world and stood astride two worlds.

We ate da pan ji in Tashkurgan for lunch and had to pay for the driver’s share.  After we got our passports back, we had an uneventful return to Kashgar.  Upon our return there commenced an episode in which the Chini Bagh did not honor our reservations, so we got a room at the much more pleasant Home Inn just down the street.  At first the concierge said “no foreigners, you don’t have a permit” so I showed him my visa, when he replied “oh, yes you do.”  Do they really believe that foreigners can / do get into the country without the proper paperwork?

I slept fitfully that night and awoke on Eid ul-Fitr, Friday the tenth. We saw about twenty thousand penitents pray at Id Kah Mosque.  I felt disliked by the locals and very out of place.  This was right around the time when Obama had announced the “end” of “combat missions” in Iraq, and it was the day before September 11 and when that guy in Florida said he would burn a Koran.  It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like the imam said “Obama” a lot during the prayer.  This was the first time I had ever seen any kind of Muslim religious ceremony, and I think that Eid ul-Fitr counts as the top example of such an occasion.

The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Islamic Faithful along the Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
A Man and his Son at Id Kah Mosque on Eid Ul-Fitr
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
Men Pray on Eid Ul-Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
On Knees for Allah on Eid Ul-Fitr
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque
The Thousands Ruk'u on Eid-ul Fitr at Id Kah Mosque

After the morning ceremony, I relaxed most of the day.  At the infamous Fubar, just outside the Chini Bagh, I met a friendly fellow named Brian from San Francisco.  We talked for awhile about the Karakoram Highway – he was looking to cycle up to Karakul Lake – and agreed to meet for dinner later that night.  Despite it being Eid we had a hard time finding a proper restaurant; the place where we wound up was rather dirty.  At Arnab’s insistence we got da pan ji again.  Arnab, not being much of a drinker, retired after this to prepare for our 24-hour train journey to Urumqi the next day.  I joined Brian at Fubar for a drink.  Before we even reached the bar I started feeling a bit queasy.  In the middle of our conversation at Fubar I had to excuse myself to employ the facilities.  Post-facilities I felt fine again, so it was clear that the da pan ji was bad, though I was the only one to get ill.

The next morning, my final act before departing to the train station was to check my email for any news on DC employment updates.  Fortuna had smiled upon me – I was accepted to a three-month internship at the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Initiative!  My search for some form of employment had finally come to an end.  I sent a quick positive reply, and we began our grueling nine-day journey from the farthest point in the PRC from Beijing back to the city that had been my home for a year.  Thus commenced my final fortnight in China.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/prestonrhea/5016453503/” title=”_mg_3403.cr2 by preston.rhea, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4152/5016453503_989b15c418.jpg” width=”500″ height=”399″ alt=”_mg_3403.cr2″ /></a>

Too-Hot in Turpan

I will never take a sleeper bus again unless absolutely necessary – words I later ate in a double-size meal.  I spent the twelve-hour ride to Turpan either getting tossed by the bus bumping along unfinished roads, or fitfully turning and trying strange positions for my legs, which were at least a foot too long for the small space you are allowed below the next person’s seat-bed.  As this bus ride was the passage from Gansu Province into the considerably more restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, we were boarded twice by police who checked our IDs; they had a scanner for the Chinese IDs but they just glanced at my passport and continued on.

I arrived at the Tulufan Bingguan as recommended in Lonely Planet at 8 in the morning, where Arnab had arrived the night before.  I took a freezing cold shower and we met a guide he spent time with the night before. We agreed to a slightly inflated price (I think) of 100 kuai per person for just us touring because we were too late to catch the minibus tour.  However this turned out well because even though we went to the traditional karez irrigation works and the Buddha Caves, these were things we didn’t want to pay to see.

We wanted to eat a tasty Uighur breakfast, but we had the not-so-good fortune of landing in Xinjiang during Ramadan so proper Uighur places were closed until Eid on September 10th, nine days later.  Our driver took us to a pretty crappy Chinese breakfast, including salty milk tea, at the jiaotong bingguan (bus station motel) for 10 kuai.  He then took us to the Buddha caves and past the “Flaming Mountains” where we did not pay to enter the “official viewing area” to see.  The Flaming Mountains are a bit over-hyped although they look cool, like Mars; but we saw them in the morning and I’ll bet they look best as the Sun sets.

The Flaming Mountains
The Flaming Mountains

Next we went to the Grape Valley, which was my favorite part of the day.  Our driver took us in the back way, so we drove through the whole grape-growing neighborhood, which was devoid of tourists because they all enter through the pay-60-kuai entrance. (Our driver wound up extracting 30 kuai each from us for the benefit of taking this better tour).  We drove right to his friend’s small grove/restaurant.  I wish we had gotten out and walked a bit, but it was still beautiful to sit in the shade of the grapevines.  At the restaurant we were invited to cut our own grapes from the ceiling vines (for free!) and we sat down to those and some fresh watermelon, rounding it out with a massive pot of Central Asian chai tea and a tasty mutton dish with peppers and home-made noodles.

Turpan Grape Woman
Turpan Grape Woman
I Cut the Grapes in Turpan
I Cut the Grapes in Turpan
Arnab Enjoys the Fruits of Turpan
Arnab Enjoys the Fruits of Turpan

We relaxed with the powerful copper-colored chai and the numerous grapes in the comfort of the vine shade until we were ready to visit Jiaohe Ancient City.  It cost 40 kuai to get in but it’s a pretty well-preserved ( in ruinous terms ) ancient Silk Road desert city dating from the Han period.  The Chinese predictably congregated only 1/3 of the way up the 1.5 km path through numerous ruins to take pictures at the touristy “scenic spot” with fake costumed Han desert women.  Arnab and I continued on up to the end of the path, even though the Sun was awfully punishing and there was almost no shade.  Our reward was a most interesting and totally tourist-free (save us) stay in the ruined Great Buddhist Temple, which still had some weathered Buddha statues in its prayer place.

The Great Buddhist Temple at Jiaohe Ruins
The Great Buddhist Temple at Jiaohe Ruins
Faded Buddhas at Jiaohe Ruins
Faded Buddhas at Jiaohe Ruins
Stupa Graveyard at Jiaohe Ruins
Stupa Graveyard at Jiaohe Ruins

Then we went by the karez irrigation works but decided we didn’t want to pay 40 kuai to see it.  Subsequently we went to photograph the Emin Minaret from the outside since entry costs 50 kuai.  That evening at our hotel I encountered a loud group of American exchange students and talked with a girl studying at UIBE who did not know that foreigners could join groups, whether at the University or in the city.

We wanted to leave Turpan by train, but we were forced settle for a sleeper bus since no train tickets were available for days.  Twenty-four hours across the Taklamakan Desert to Hotan was to begin at 13:00 the following afternoon  That night we went to a waterfront restaurant whith great food and good tea.  We enjoyed huge kebab and da pan ji.  We sat for a while and listened to the music the Chinese danced to, then we went to bed. The next morning we ate some beef noodles and got on the bus to Hotan.

A lot of Uighurs were conscious of the Iraq “war mission” ending right at that time.  Our Turpan taxi driver, the guy who sold coffee at the hotel, and a man on the bus to Hotan all mentioned the Iraq pullout and asked if I liked Obama.  I think the Uighurs on the bus to Hotan spoke in their language about how some people in the US think Obama is a Muslim.

All of my photos from Turpan can be found here.

The Burden of Leadership

I watched the election returns last night with some AIESEC friends and others at my place. Yuengling, that first American beer so new to Georgia, and Maker’s Mark, my personal favorite go-to bourbon, were on hand for the long haul. Of course it wasn’t a long haul; he was declared the winner at 11 PM.

We were watching CNN, continually checking out fivethirtyeight, people’s blogs, etc. When Wolf Blitzer said that CNN was projecting the West Coast was going for Obama and he had won the presidency, I immediately called to mind the opening scene of the pilot episode of Firefly, when Mal is fighting in the Battle of Serenity Valley for the Browncoats. As vicious fighting rages on and the Alliance is decimating his battallion, he grinningly and assuredly yells at his soldiers that soon “our birds will be in the air,” to clear out the valley for them. But then they receive a call saying “They’re not coming. Command says it’s too hot.” And Mal looks, in empty disbelief, as the Alliance ships come down to occupy the valley and the remainder of his battallion, save himself and his second-in-command (a female!) are massacred.

That must be how John McCain and Sarah Palin, in some twisted way, felt as the nation fell to Obamamania.

Or, from the victor’s account, a nation stood up “in hope,” and spoke very loudly about both the direction the country must go in and about their final word on the intensely racist past of this country.

Or from my account, an extremely gifted politician demonstrated shrewd political and organizational forethought and leadership to build up the gigantic machine atop which he was able to sincerely convince a majority across many states that his was the way of engaged peace, turning the wheels of the country to production and prosperity, and he would lead all Americans and not cast any single aspect of his own identity onto his administration.

Fireworks started going off in Atlanta and horns were honking. I received phone calls from friends, and texted to one person who was at Obama’s Grant Park jubilee. McCain’s speech came on, and the man was as respectable, gracious, and honorable as any to have given a speech of victory or conciliation, but the harsh venom and anger of his supporters sprayed upon him one lsat time, even in his singular opportunity to close the wounds of a long campaign. I felt, and continue to feel, genuinely bad for McCain as it is clear he tried to act with the utmost integrity and cooperation, ensuring angry people at his rallies that Obama was not a Muslim and was “a family man,” among being his friend and other things. But the evil of the institution of the political party – his just happens to be Republican, but it’s not about being a Republican, it’s about the Party – found its voice with Sarah Palin, who will chill the hearts and minds of Americans as a fresh new avatar of Dick Cheney.

The Facebook status was last night the soapbox of anti-democratic (notice the little “d”) anger. Beyond even that, it was an art exhibit of sheer ignorance and amazing misinformation, along with the expected racism. One person had “That’s it! I’m moving to Iraq!”, Christians of the right put their pitiful prayers up, like “It’s okay, it is all in God’s plans” on one end, but on the other were such statements as “…God help us.” or to the one who most horribly represents the right-wing of the Institute, “praying for our country… and reminding everyone that ‘God is still God, and Jesus is still coming back!'” Even more confusing, because I don’t expect the aforementioned to utilize any semblance of the reason they had been given at birth, were the statements about Obama’s “socialism” and that “we’re screwed, my paycheck is going to the government.” Since when _wasn’t_ your paycheck going to the government? It was Ben Franklin (a Deist!) who said that there are only two certainties, death and taxes. We have not entered anything even suggesting a “requisition-bracket.” It is easy for me to dismiss the religious swooning, but those arguments just make me scratch my head; it’s really beyond me how such a large part of the American population, especially young people, seriously believe that Obama is a socialist, a Muslim, or both. LBJ and FDR were both far more “socialist,” and not even that, than Obama ever will be. Socialism makes up a significant part of my own political belief system, and I did not vote for Obama mostly because he is not nearly far enough left for me. If that’s the case, how can he be a socialist?

That aside, we looked forward to Obama’s victory speech at midnight. I prepared us all a shot of Maker’s and we watched as he gave his speech. We were all silent, understanding just how important this moment was. Not because of Obamamania, but because America had just executed one of those bloodless revolutions like the one that occurred in 1800, and because we were a part of the election that saw the resurgence of young people as a major political force and that elected the first Black president. That was a pretty cool thing to be a part of.

The real significance of the day didn’t truly hit me until today, however. I was pretty excited to think of the road ahead of the country, and the world as a result. The ecstatic welcome of the whole world to Obama should be enough to prove how important that is. I should note here that I still stand by my vote for Nader. A friend called and asked me last night, as she was reveling in Ohio, if I would have still voted for Nader had this been a serious 2000-style election and I was in a battleground state; I answered yes. The only thing I have is my choice, and if I give it up, I give up everything.

I am looking forward to engaging in constructive dialogue with even the “sinners” at the table, like North Korea and Iran and Venezuela. I am looking forward to a resurgence of feeling good about the country because of our standard of living, which we should be thankful. I am looking forward to the way Obama will probably bring about a more direct form of democracy through his personal interest and enthusiasm in things like social networks and open source software. Most of all I am looking forward to his announcement of a project to make the nation energy independent in ten years, our very own modern-day Apollo project, which will also form the powerful new engine for the economy which those neocons have failed to understand.

Which reminds me, ever noticed how the Great Depression was preceded by a decade of Republican rule in the executive branch and legislative branch, and this current crisis has been preceded by Republican rule in the legislature since 1994, save the last two years, and a Republican in the White House since 2001?

I did a lot of reading up over the last couple of weeks on Obama’s victory machine and how it occurred, and I learned that it came from Dean‘s strategy in 2004, which he has now translated to the DNC as his “fifty-state strategy.” I began to take some inspiration from this, noting how Dean insisted that Democrats engage all Americans in all States, not just their largely outdated vanguard of labor unions, immigrants and other minorities, “big-city” liberals and working-class whites. Obama has perfected that vision, engaging with all Americans on their own terms as the direction of this country has been washed out by Hurricane Bush. It’s much like lessons of leadership I’ve learned on my own journey in AIESEC – if you are not open and don’t let people come to terms with their own decisions, then the integrity of your organization is doomed to fail. Forcing beliefs and decisions down people’s throats is a ticket to retribution – or as we saw this July, revolution.

Which leads me to finally discuss much of my feelings about my term at Local Committee President of AIESEC at Georgia Tech.

Everyone tells you that being LCP is the best year of your life – and indeed, they are right. It is the coolest job in AIESEC. You are truly a leader, no one to catch you, no one to tell you what to do. You have to manage a business and make sure it is sustainable, and grows, and produces your product in high volume – quality AIESEC Experiences.

They’re right!

But I came into this role amist a dark and worsening cloud over AIESEC US. When elected, LC motivation was approaching an all-time low from when I was a part of restarting it. Students had been stripped of the last “real” exercise of power we had, producing traineeships, against our will. The entire MoTxCoKs region released a letter of grievances to the nation directed at the national staff – none of them were answered. I woke up in St. Louis on January 1 knowing that if AIESEC US was not saved in this year, it would never be saved.

It was not only the daunting national situation, but also my semester of unprecedented academic difficulty, which beat me hard. My high hopes for making my team an extremely tight unit, vanguard for AIESEC GT, were eventually put down by both my own inability to motivate people and also my inability to abandon my classes to F’s (although I almost failed two classes that semester). This was de-motivation number one. That followed up with things I was learning that were happening to AIESEC US – namely that we were losing our full member status, and my knowledge that the national staff was not too interested in doing anything about it.

On the local front meanwhile, I had seriously alienated the team that left me the office, the EB of 2007 – and this was in the end all my fault. I wanted to wipe away the demotivation of the fall, but I handled it too poorly and it cost me dearly, and in turn it cost the LC dearly. To those of you who came before us: I apologize. I was wrong to not seek your counsel more deliberately, and to not consider what words you did offer more seriously.

I went to EUROXPROS in St. Petersburg, Russia, for Spring Break, knowing that in the last days of that meeting the national staff would be meeting in the US to determine what to do about our membership status in the global network. This weighed so heavily on me, and my conversations with Naoufel there were both a buoy to my sanity and a confirmation to my fears. One day during the conference when we worked with the Balanced ScoreCard, I realized fully how much AIESEC US was not AIESEC at a fundamental level (to use the words of the Senator from Illinois). I became visibly upset – I kind of hyperventilated and kept shaking my head. People asked me if I was alright; I was not. My mind was breaking, as was my heart, in the middle of Russia by the sea.

I managed to have a very useful and important conversation with some pertinent people on the AI team there about the situation, and their counsel was seriously important to the events that followed. It was, essentially, necessary that I went there to Russia, even if I did not go to meet them in the first place.

A national Leadership Team meeting took place in NYC in late April, where Missy was not present. I could guess why; no one else knew except two national staffers. Besides being a predictably unproductive meeting, they claimed that the memership criteria did not require us to do anything more than write down what we already do. My own independent investigation and counsel with Missy had already made me know that those were untrue statements.

When Missy quit as MCP, I took open action, an action of opening: I made the uneducated LCPs of AIESEC US aware of the freely-available and binding literature on the member country situation, such that everyone could read for themselves the truth. It did require some coordinating however, such that I had to email AI to request one document, but the document was freely available to anyone who asked for it. I sent it out on a Friday to prevent quick retaliation by the Thought Police.

I got a call from the person who would later be installed as Missy’s replacement, without any democratic process. He said that what I had done was seriously damaging, and if I did anything like it again, “we cannot work together.” I’d heard that one before. I simply responded “I understand.” I was in the car on the way from Gadsden to Atlanta to leave for Canada’s national conference that night when I got this call. I had made my decision about my role in AIESEC US.

As if by fate, the same person I talked to in Russia was the chair of the conference. I managed to get some time with him, and there the foundations were laid for what I had to do, to be a responsible leader, someone who would stand up and give a damn about AIESEC in the US. It was all up to me, but the first keys had been handed to me.

The national organization in turmoil and anger already from Missy’s departure and her unwarranted replacement, I set about using the global network I had built over my nearly three-year tenure in AIESEC. They proved totally necessary in building what eventually became the plan: to produce a letter written by and signed by as many LCPs as possible, to be placed on myAIESEC.net so as to not only be publicly visible, but also to be required to be used as “evidence” by the Global Plenary of AIESEC. I had to keep identities secret when I talked to LCPs to protect people, but we managed to organize it right under the natstaff’s nose.

The major error came at this point, however: there were a couple of LCs, namely Michigan and Baruch, which we feared may alert the national staff if we invited them to talk about the letter. That would be unacceptable; most LCPs were not knowledgeable enough about the bad reality of AIESEC US as I was (from a tell-all by a former natstaffer) to firmly stand by their signature in the face of natstaff retaliation before the letter was released. Thus, the very difficult decision had to be made by those people who were responsible for those regions (the letter writing and organization had one leader per region involved). In the end, they were not approached. There were a few other LCs which we tried to approach but we did not manage to have a conversation with before July 4; this proved to be the dividing line in the days afterwards, especially in Madison.

I learned my lesson about openness from that – if people do not take ownership over something, no matter how much of a “fellow traveler” they are, if they are not a part of the process that creates a decision or product, then invariably they will not be as “on-board” as those who did create it, and will probably even wind up standing in opposition to it. It is the nature of organization and allegiance and is unbeatable. One of the people we did not reach, whom most say would have been for the letter, wound up being one of its most vocal opponents.

Then came July 4; then came the dissolution of the LC, then came the story we all know. Then came August 5, then came the resignation of the national staff, then came the night we said “we are the most powerful people on earth.” Sure it was just euphoria, sure it was – but we did not expect that one month and one day after the letter was released this clean sweep would occur. We didn’t want it to happen that way, mind you, but it did, and here we are.

And while I was galavanting with national and global figures, fighting the fight which I had to to preserve AIESEC US and by association my own LC, there nonetheless sat my beloved family in Atlanta, not cared for as it should have been. I was like the senator who spent all his time in Washington. I did not care for my constituents, I did not care for my family.

I think that during my tenure, I have been too dogmatic about AIESEC. I have done no small amount of philosophizing around our product and our identity, the nature of AIESEC as a student organization, and the like. It has led me to identify those things which make for a great AIESEC Experience. It was utterly invaluable in the revolution. But the students of Georgia Tech are not all like that, and by failing to accomodate that, I did not live up to my own expectations in terms of the quality of results I wanted, and I did not live up to the expectations of the office of Local Committee President in terms of the dynamic of the LC. I became too harsh sometimes to my EB, and that only drove them away, and disrepair continued.

I have a hard time connecting with people who haven’t “gotten” AIESEC yet. I want so badly for the people who come in as newies to have their minds blown like I and the veterans of the LC have, to realize how magnificent it is that such an organization really does exist and we are a part of it, and more recently how beautiful it feels to give so much to save it, and finally, finally see the day come where the road is lit again by the light of openness. I’m just not that kind of guy. Luckily my successor is that kind of gal.

We are called “Local” Committee President for a reason. It is my belief that I did not live up to my own expectations, nor that of my team, nor that of my LC, nor that of my predecessors, and probably not that of my colleagues here or around the world, in that local capacity. AIESEC happens on a local level, and no matter how much I did on the national level, I can’t change that I failed to be an effective leader where it matters most to our product.

That being said, the events of July 4 and Madison in early August, as well as finally National Presidents Meeting in Chicago, were transforming to my life. The night of August 5 confirmed in my heart what my life-quest must be: to wage openness on the world. I must swing the sword of truth to destroy corruption and the closed nature of parts of our society and allow facts to kill lies. It is this quest to which I am dedicating my entire life. How I will do it, I’m not entirely sure yet, but I will say one possible path is being inspired by George Soros (former honorary Chairman of the Board of AIESEC US!) and his Open Society Institute.

Something more I have been thinking about from that time, something which has plagued me since I entered university, is that my skills shine there, on the national and global stage. That’s where I have achieved the most, and it is explicitly through my talents and practice. My talent for that sort of thing, I guess we’ll call it “statesmanship,” was first prominently exhibited when I was whisked from being a cynical and angry young liberal at what I percieved as a corrupt and overly religious Alabama YMCA Youth in Government summit in 2004, to being declared as one of the 20 delegates (out of about 400) from Alabama to the 2004 Youth Conference on National Affairs – and I didn’t even know such a damn thing existed. My experience there was also pretty important. And though my skills were in places like that, as well as writing and music in high school, I chose to go into electrical engineering specifically because I didn’t have a knack for it and it would be challenging. In my research on how Obama’s political machine has brought him to such a victory, I was reading Bill Clinton’s Wikipedia entry. This passage spoke directly to me, my feelings, my experience, and my future:

In Hot Springs, Clinton attended St. John’s Catholic Elementary School, Ramble Elementary School, and Hot Springs High School – where he was an active student leader, avid reader, and musician.[citation needed] He was in the chorus and played the tenor saxophone, winning first chair in the state band’s saxophone section. He briefly considered dedicating his life to music, but as he noted in his autobiography My Life:

(…) Sometime in my sixteenth year I decided I wanted to be in public life as an elected official. I loved music and thought I could be very good, but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz. I was interested in medicine and thought I could be a fine doctor, but I knew I would never be Michael DeBakey. But I knew I could be great in public service.[13]

And that is where I find myself. I love music and was considering how I could do it for serious money in college, but I knew I would never be Chuck Leavell. Now I am getting my ass kicked by, but seriously taking an interest in, electrical engineering but I will never be anything like Nikola Tesla. But I can be a great leader of my community, and we all know that geographical lines don’t mean anything any more with communities. That is where my talents lie, and I have to come to terms with that. I have to stop denying it. But I cannot sell out either; I must combine my talents with my quest and become a Hero.

Separation, Initiation, and Return.

After sitting down and writing this, I realize that is why I am really so interested in Obama now. I’m not an Obama-maniac, mind you; I always question everything and I won’t stop, and so I have to be skeptical of the pageant of his campaign promises. Nevertheless, here is a man who came from a world totally unlike the one he gained the key to Tuesday night. Obama is what the Shepherd called “a Believer:”

SHEPHERD BOOK: Only one thing is gonna walk you through this, Mal. Belief.

MAL: Sermons make me sleepy, Shepherd. I ain’ t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.

BOOK: When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?

It’s time for me to believe too. Not in Obama. In my talents and in my quest.

Getting It Off of My E-Chest

I just have to say this:

I REALLY WANT THIS ELECTION TO BE OVER.

Even though I voted for Ralph Nader, the thought of what “could” come with Obama – not the starry-eyed pipe dream hopes of those who apply to the “cult of O,” but specifically the thought of finally getting universal healthcare, finally getting sex education that makes sense, a leader who has no preconditions for talking with other leaders, and most overwhelmingly importantly the prospect of what a new wave of science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM as the Obama campaign has branded it) can do for the country, for energy, and for the world (and of course for my own career path) has me more than excited. I’ve done a fair amount of studying up on this and all indications are, with the right mandate in the legislature, it’ll be a true new industrial revolution.

So, I just hope nothing happens to bring the predictions crashing down. I’d be an extremely sad engineer, a sad AIESECer, a sad American. And a sad person.