First of all I want to thank all of you for reading and following along with my travels. I did not expect my blogging to be popular, but it’s a nice surprise. So thanks!
Anyway, today was an extremely interesting day. Our morning started out on an unexpectedly surprising note. As I mentioned yesterday, we visited the Church of St. Ludimla on our way to Leaders magazine. While there, we stumbled upon a group of men in rather unique outfits. One in particular was wearing chaps and a long “T-shirt,” barely covering his behind… Like I said, the outfits were unique. We soon found out that these men were part of a film that was being filmed in the city later that night. Mary, our resident broadcaster did a short on-camera interview with these actors and found out that they were filming a western film appropriately titled “A Western Story.”
A few minutes later a large parade of horses and dressed actors and actresses gathered in the front of the church. It was really cool because we were all standing in front of the church, enjoying our ice cream and before we knew it we were surrounded by horses and westerners. We hung out for awhile, soaking up all of the excitement before proceeding on to the magazine office.
This morning, as we were preparing to board the tram to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a few of us picked up a copy of Metro, a free print publication found in the train stations. On the front page of the paper was a large picture of two western-style girls on horses in front of the Church of St. Ludimla. We all thought this was really cool, since we knew exactly what it was from, until we looked closer at the picture. In the background of the picture was two (well, one and a half) girls from our group! It was so cool and appropriate that two communication students happen to be on the front page of a newspaper in the Czech Republic. So exciting!
After we all grabbed a handful of copies of the newspaper, we boarded the train and headed to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL.. Before heading to RFE/RL, we stopped by Dr. Franz Kafka’s grave. The grave site was in a large cemetery across the street from RFE/RL. As weird as this sounds, the cemetery was rather cool and interesting to see because there were so many graves so close together. Some of the grave stones were very large, others were smaller and some have fallen over the years and are now lying in a pile. The cemetery was completely shaded by trees, so as you looked towards the back of the cemetery it became darker and darker. The foliage was overgrown, which only added to the effect.
We then proceeded to RFE/RL. The security there is extremely tight, much more intense than some airports. This is to be expected however, as they are in existence to provide news to countries with corrupt broadcast regulations. Before our visit, we had to submit our full name and passport number to ensure that if something happened while we were there, they’d know where to find us. It was a little intimidating, but necessary none the less.
Upon our arrival we had to present our passports and go through bag-screening, metal detectors and explosive testing twice. Once we passed through, we were given visitors passes and met with our “tour guide” for the day, Larisa Balanovskaya. Larisa was an extremely welcoming woman, originally from a small country called Kyrgystan.
“RFE/RL’s mission is to provide uncensored news and information in countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established. Our journalists provide what many people cannot get locally: responsible discussion and open debate of local and international news, politics, history, culture, religion, and economics.” RFE/RL is an independent organization which broadcasts in 21 countries and 28 languages, including Bashkir, Kazakh, Pashto, Tajik and Uzbek. “Some of the countries “RFE/RL broadcasts from, including Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, are among the most dangerous places for journalists in the world.” The station is not able to have a studio in every country it broadcasts to. When this is the case, such as in Iran, journalists come to them to bring information and stories.
This independent and international news service was set up during the Cold War and conducted its first broadcast in July of 1950 from Munich, Germany. RFE/RL was established to provide news to Eastern European citizens living behind the Iron Curtain. The initial broadcast was in Czech, and one year later the news service was already “broadcasting in five languages in Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain.” The organization was originally funded by the CIA, but in 1971 the US Congress began funding RFE/RL directly.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many thought the work of RFE was done. This wasn’t the case as there was and still is much going on in the world. Since the fall, the organization has ended broadcasts in Central and Eastern European countries that “have successfully transitioned to democracy.”
RFE/RL initially broadcasted from Munich, but moved to Wenceslas Square in the Czech Republic in 1995 and remained there until 2009. Czech president, Vaclav Havel and Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus invited the station to move to Prague. The station was moved to its current location today because of security reasons. The Wenceslas Square location, which was originally the Soviet Parliament building, was situated in a target-prone area, so the station received many bomb threats.
After Larisa gave us a brief, and by brief I mean almost an hour, history of the organization we met with Julian Knapp who spoke to us about what content is broadcasted and how it is presented. Because of the funding they receive from the US, they feel truth is the best propaganda in relation to story-telling approaches. They try to shape the message in a way to go along with policies. It is important for them to remain unbiased because their listeners are smart and can detent any underlying messages or agendas. The station is on the “hate list” of many countries, but as Julian put it, “if the government is not annoyed by your broadcast, you must think why not.”
The length of broadcast in any given country depends on the budget and mandate by the US Congress. For example, Iran has a 24 hour broadcast, Afghanistan has 12 hours per day and Russia has a 24 hour broadcast. The station does not have any formal relationships with any news services, such as BBC. They receive their news from locals and journalists living and working in those countries.
I found much of what Julian said to be fascinating. It was amazing to hear about the dedication this organization has to these corrupt countries. We then met with Bruce Pannier, RFE/RL’s Central Asia’s correspondent. Bruce has no journalistic background but studied central Asia at Columbia University and has lived in Prague for 17years. One of the most interesting things he told us was that in the field of journalism, it’s more than just being a journalist. One must learn and respect the cultures and politics of these regions before becoming a successful journalist.
We took a short break for lunch, had the chance to sit in on an editorial meeting and then met with our final speaker of the day, Akbar Ayazi. Born in Afghanistan and immigrated to the United States in 1980, Akbar worked for the Voice of America in Washington DC before relocating to Prague to work for RFE/RL. Akbar is the Associate Director of Broadcasting to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.
This was my favorite part of the day, and my favorite part of the trip as well. It was so interesting to learn about and listen to Akbar speak because when we hear about these places on the news it’s most negative and focused on the unfortunate events taking place there. You hear the name of these countries and cringe because it’s just the way we’ve been conditioned to think and react. But hearing the stories and seeing the letters from the young children shows how great this organization is and what a positive and life-changing impact it has had on their lives. Despite all of the hatred and destruction going on in this part of the world, the RFE/RL gives the people a glimmer of hope, showing them that there is someone out there who cares.
In Iran, musicians are banned from producing and playing music. Beverly Hills has been taken over by Iranian musicians and the RFE/RL relies on this community for music, discussions and information. The Iranian government is against this broadcasting of RFE/RL and often jams frequencies and blocks sites from citizens. RFE/RL is the only radio broadcasting service giving Iranian citizens information. This is important because the government often tries to mislead people by giving them false or misguiding information.
In Afghanistan the RFE/RL has a very well-established network of people. They are the most popular and trusted radio station with 52.2% of citizens tuning in. They are not just a news service but have earned a status of civil service and trust among Iranians. If they have a problem, they call the RFE/RL and the organization does anything in its power to help. There was one situation when a man had lost his wife. He contacted the station and they helped him relocate her. Another instance of civil service happened when the station did a story on suicide bombers. The story focused on how and what a young boy is thinking and feeling with a bomb strapped to himself. Because of this article, one young boy sent a letter to RFE/RL thanking them for writing the story because it saved his life. This is a perfect example of how important this organization is, as well as how much of an impact it has on their lives.
Most of the time, these young children do not have anything to live for. They do not have a school to attend every day, a cell phone to text their friends on or an Xbox to play with. Because of this, it is easy to attract them to strap a weapon to themselves and aim it at people. They don’t have anything else to do and nothing to live for.
During the Soviet Empire many Afghans immigrated. Most of them travelled with illegal passports and lived out of the country for 20-25 years. When they wanted to go back they were denied entry into the country because they didn’t have the correct passport. RFE/RL pushed the government to find identities for the 600,000 misplaced Afghan citizens who wanted to go home.
Akbar told us a story about a recent US bomb that was dropped in Northern Afghanistan, killing four people who ended up being a family. The bomb caused a huge uproar and led to a riot of 3,000 people in the streets, resulting in police and force of authorities. The riot caused two additional deaths as well as many anti-American demonstrations, including the burning of Obama’s picture. The act of dropping a bomb on an innocent family leaves a sour taste in the mouth of the citizens in the region.
The RFE/RL as a whole serves a great purpose but the work done by Akbar and his staff things into perspective for Americans. To put things into perspective, the extensive work done in the Middle East by Akbar has a budget equivalent of three apache helicopters in the United States. Last year, Hilary Clinton came to RFE/RL for an interview. Akbar’s department promoted interview 48 hours in advance, stating that she would be taking questions from listeners. Almost immediately, they received over 1,000 emails from Afghanistans. During the interview session, Akbar would play the question, translate it to her and then she would answer. One question was about how she felt about a bomb that killed the parents of a young girl. Hilary answered the question and later asked them to find the girl. They did, and later set up a meeting with her. “These are the stories. This is the real journalism that we believe in.”
After our humbling visit to RFE/RL, we boarded a train and headed back to our apartment. We got back from our visit around 5pm. There were a few things I wanted to buy, so we quickly changed and headed towards Old Town Square. On the way, we stopped at a large open-market. Here, there were vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, chocolate, beads and jewelry. It was really cool, and quite large. I was actually surprised it was still open, as it was almost 6, but was happy to have had the opportunity to shop there.
We finished most of our shopping, and headed toward the Astronomical Clock to meet Kristen’s friend, Suzie. We finally timed it perfectly and got the chance to hear and see the clock play its chimes. The clock, much like the Glockenspiel in Munich, Germany is a popular attraction and a large mass gathers in front of it a few minutes before every hour, 9am-9pm. The clock is beautiful to look at, but the original chimes are not so exciting. To make the “performance” more exciting, they added a second part to the chiming performance to make the experience better, or so they thought. While the added trumpet effect is beautiful, it’s not original.
By this point, it was 7pm and most of the cafes in Old Town Square were packed. We decided to walk to the shopping mall and eat at one of the cafes on the upper level. We found an Italian restaurant, which brings me to another quick point. Italian food is extremely popular here. When walking down the sidewalk, you’d probably pass at least 5 pizza/pasta restaurants per block. While I realize pizza is not technically Italian food, it is absolutely delicious here. The crust is thin and crispy, with any topping you could ever imagine. They also have great pasta dishes here as well. Things you don’t see often enough in the United States…unless my mom is making it, however – then it’s the best.
For dinner I had meat tortellini in a red-cream sauce, and of course, a Staropramen (which is my favorite Czech beer, in case you have forgotten). After dinner, Suzie wanted to take us to another one of her favorite places in Prague, a Cuban bar near Old Town Square. This place was AWESOME. First of all, you walk up to the place and it’s overflowing with people. There is traditional salsa music playing and you can just smell the Mojitos in the air. We made our way downstairs, where we found another smaller bar and a live band playing salsa music. We took a seat at the bar and ordered the restaurant’s staple, a raspberry Mojito. The comical and charming bartenders made our Mojitos right in front of us; scoop of brown sugar, handful of fresh mint leaves, a spoonful of fresh, ground raspberries, chopped ice, and of course, the alcohol. The bartenders, Pabel and Karel threw the bottles in the air, giving us quite the show.
As we sat there, enjoying our Mojitos, an older Spanish man persuaded each of us to get up and salsa dance with him, well- at least try to Salsa with him. The basement room was small, with low ceilings and was packed with people, all of which were drinking Mojitos. When Suzie told us this Cuban bar was known for Mojitos, I didn’t realize how famous these said Mojitos were.
It started to get late and we started getting ready to leave just as Pabel, the bartender, placed another raspberry Mojito in front of us. We were a little nervous because right before he gave us the Mojitos we had asked for the check. After he put them in front of us we thought we had somehow managed to order another round, which would’ve posed a problem after we found out how much they were later on in the night. I’m not going to go into any details about the cost of these Mojitos, but they weren’t cheap. I was okay with it, however and told myself that my parents would’ve said the same – so it’s totally fine.
Anyway, we all looked at each out in confusion before he told us that “the man in the stripes” bought these for us. Now, these Mojitos tasted amazing but I could literally see how much alcohol was in them and knew that if I had many more I’d be in trouble…Don’t worry Ma and Da, I’m responsible – I didn’t drive…
We finished the second Mojito and before we knew it there was a third in front of us. Now what I haven’t told you yet is that at this point we still weren’t sure who these drinks were coming from. This may sound creepy, but it was a legit place so I wasn’t too worried about it. When Pabel told us that the “guy in the striped shirt” bought us the drinks, he wasn’t being very specific. When I turned around to find this striped-man, I spotted at least 5 dudes wearing striped shirts. We had it narrowed down to two of them, but still, even to this day are not entirely sure which one it was. Oh well, free Mojitos? I’m in!
Pabel was quite the entertaining bartender; however I think we were equally, if not more entertaining with our dance moves and poor attempts at speaking Czech. We were all taking pictures of them mixing the Mojitos. Some turned out awesome. At one point, Pabel leaned over the bar and told me that he wanted a picture with me. I thought he meant for me to just turn around, pose and snap – this was not the case. He directed me to come behind the bar to get a photo. Yep, I went behind the bar, Pabel picked me up and the photo was taken. I, of course, was loving every second of it and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Karel, the other bartender, held a sign up behind my head in the picture. I’m not sure what it says because it’s in Spanish, but I’m sure it’s totally fine.
We sucked down our third Mojito and left the bar before stripes could buy us another destructive round of Mojitos. We made it back to our apartment just fine and almost immediately went to bed (hence why this blog is a day late…)
I think I’ve successfully created the longest blog post ever, so I’m going to end it for now. Thanks for hanging in there with me. If you made it to the end, you’re the best