Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cocktail Chatter- Things you never hear in the US

Some longterm expat friends of mine were kind enough to invite me to Thanksgiving Dinner last week, whereupon this valuable gem of information was uncovered:

Did you realize you can rent an entire flock of sheep (complete with shepherd and dog) for under $30/day in the Armenian countryside north of Yerevan?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Miss Finance 2007 Beauty Pageant

Just when you thought improbable occurances on a daily basis were so routine to become almost unnoticeable, The Miss Finance Russia beauty pageant comes along.

No, I'm not kidding. Check it out for yourself at

According to the website, the purpose of the pageant is to "find the most worthiest representatives of the financial world to the public". Competition organisers added "We want our customers to understand that financial services are available to everyone, that finance is not just about numbers but can be sometimes be a very beautiful girl", and the press release stated that the co-hosts (one a beautiful girl and one a male businessman) "personified the two sides of the contest, on the one hand-an excellent representative of the female sex, and the other, an elegant businessman, a representative of the financial sector".

In addition to the obvious "Miss Finance" crown, girls had the ability to compete for such prestigeous titles as "Miss Pension Fund", "Miss Asset Manager", and "Miss Banker". This year they added a new category called "Miss Sympathy", presumably for the poor girl who actually has financial skills but who's aesthetics aren't quite up to scratch.

To earn these noble titles, girls had to do such varied things as singing, dancing, dressing in random Asian outfits and wedding dresses and submit writing samples. To the best of my knowledge, there were no swimsuit competitions (pity), and nothing whatsoever that had anything to do with actual finance. To the right is a photo of the unfortunate "Miss Sympathy".

Viva Russia, and their dignified Finance representatives!

Not to be outdone by "Miss Finance", other noteable upcoming professional beauty pageants include "Miss Advertising", and the dubiously titled "Miss DIM" (a local fashion house).

Contest participants can been seen here.

Russian Election Fever

Russia is currently gripped in election fever, or at least that's how the government is trying to portray it. In a country with with virtually no political freedom, it's extraordinary how much money and time is spent trying to convince people they actually have a real choice.

These photos are taken from around Moscow this afternoon (it's only about 4.30pm but it's already dark ) and show some of the thousands of billboards sprouting pro-Putin slogans. Putin has graciously agreed to head the United Russia political party's ticket for the parliamentary elections on December 2nd, which positions him for pretty much whatever he likes once he leaves office as President following presidential elections next March.

The four-story United Russia poster shown here, located adjacent to Red Square, suggests that "Moscow Votes For Putin". The one below, located over a nearby street says that "Our Choice- Vladimir Putin". This photo also shows another of Moscow's favourite things- traffic at a standstill.

In a slightly more unsettling news, apparently Kremlin-sponsored youth group Nashi ("Ours") has been training with the Moscow police and military to flood the streets during the elections to eliminate any possible chance of a Ukraine-or-Georgian-style "Colour Revolution" during the elections (a remote chance at best in this tightly-controlled country). Apparently they have also been flooding regional schools, bars, and clubs to inform people that it is their national duty to vote for Putin. Opposition parties are banned from most media and their demonstrations (when permitted) are tightly controlled.

While I was out on the streets with my camera, I also took the chance to take some pictures of Moscow now that it's covered in snow again. Isn't it pretty?

The More Things Change... Metro Madness

It's nice to know some things never change in Russia.

I was turned away from the Metro today because none of the cashiers had change for a 500 ruble note (~$20), when I was trying to purchase a 17 ruble (~70c) ticket...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Back to Reality

So I arrive back to Moscow, and this is the weather report for the next few days... On the bright side, the city looks beautiful in all the snow!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Churrascaria & Caipirinha’s in Rio

After a particularly successful recent transaction, the management team and their advisors decided to celebrate with a long weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This extravagant weekend of suites on the beach in Copacabana, yacht trips, sightseeing, ginormous delicious meals (and the delicious churrascaria), aborted helicopter flights, and trips to a long-remembered Gelateria made for an experience to remember!

An intrepid group of 12 of us made the trek from Moscow, and the Company’s local representative put a huge amount of effort into making sure we were well-taken care of and coordinated some fantastic events. After arrival on Friday morning, a leisurely breakfast by the pool at the Copacabana Palace, including the first (of many to come) Caipirinha’s helped settle us into the tropical mood.

We then set off sightseeing, heading (eventually- our group was anything but punctual) to Corcovado (statue of Christ), and Pao de Azucar (Sugarloaf), which was of particular interest to me, since I hadn’t been able to visit on previous visits. That evening, we gorged ourselves on succulent churrascaria, never-ending skewers of every type of meat imaginable continuously brought to the table… Despite limited sleep and an inability to move after practically ingesting an entire cow, I felt compelled to investigate how Rio’s nightlife had evolved in the previous five years. I’m happy to report that although not exactly known for its nightlife, Rio now boasts some pretty chic and lively lounges and bars, although the club scene leaves a little to be desired.

The next morning, our armoured convoy (complete with security detail) headed for a helicopter tour of the city, however after strong winds made this infeasible, we headed to the marina, where a delightful 75-foot yacht awaited our crew. We spent the next few hours swimming, feeding, tanning (OK- burning) and drinking endless amounts of caipirinha’s moored among some island’s off Ipanema beach.

That evening we headed for a more haute-cuisine meal (personally I was looking for more churrascaria), followed by an authentic samba school, where the locals were samba’ing up a storm, and the local bateria (Brazilian percussion groups) were practicing for the upcoming Carnavale! After several ear-splitting and entertaining hours of this (assisted by 3Real full glasses of vodka/cachaca) we were again feeling the urge to hit some “real” nightlife, and hijacked one of the vans, and went looking for a club, accompanied by a somewhat intoxicated and enthusiastic local friend of one of our group.

Upon arrival at the next venue, things took a turn for the more challenging. Our local Company representative stated the area was too dangerous and wanted to leave, our security guys called for reinforcements, a member or two of our crew were looking for some alternative intoxicants, the police were hanging around the area, and it was pretty difficult to find a bathroom. This complicated mix of affairs led to us bouncing back & forth between the club entrance (without actually going inside) and the van for a full hour, until we finally called it quits and headed back to the hotel. The police weren’t done with us though, ordering us out of the van and resulting in extensive negotiations with our security detail. We were ultimately sent on our way, negotiations concluded and tail between our legs. There is a reason I generally prefer travelling incognito.

Our final morning was spent lounging on the beach, before an enormous final churrascaria at Porcao, the most famous of Rio’s churrascaria’s. After dispatching more caipirinha’s, what seemed like 37 cows, several lambs and pigs, not to mention an innumerable number of chicken hearts, we staggered to the airport and onto our flights back home. A highlight of the flight back was an impromptu tour of the new megajet Airbus 380, one of which was open for inspection at Paris airport.

A wonderfully decadent weekend in Brazil- admittedly a long way to go for a weekend, but what a weekend!

The photos are here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Adventures in Albania

My recent excursion to Albania could hardly have been more surprising. With warnings from Russian friends and colleagues to exercise extreme caution (amid preparations for our non-return), and memories of President Bush's recent timepiece-losing antics in the region fresh in our minds, we were prepared for an ordeal. Instead, we found a bustling, prosperous nation offering exquisite food, fabulous views, wonderfully warm and hospitable people, and virtually everything available for investment, with ample success fees to be shared between all.

Seriously, you want waterfront property? Shares in a Club Med? To build a power station? A conference center high in the mountains replete with deer & an indoor pool? A marina (only 12mm Euro)?, a boat-shaped house? It's all there- Albania is ripe for investment with upside for all.

Admittedly, some of this slightly particular viewpoint is due to our wonderful host Denis, a business school mate of mine, Deputy Minister in the Albanian Govt, and the CEO of Albinvest, the foreign investment arm of the Albanian Govt. He welcomed Ariel, Guri (without watch) & I to Albania with open arms, and took us travelling for four days throughout his wonderful country.

I suspect most of you reading this know as much about Albania as we did before we landed there, so to give a bit of background, Albania is a comparatively large Balkan country that's basically been treated like a hot potato over the last 3,000 years by the Romans, Greeks, Turks, Italians, and other assorted vacationing barbarians. Its prime coastal location sandwiched between Montenegro and Greece should have afforded it some great post-Colonial opportunities, but a crackpot dictator decided Communism was the way to go for most of the 20th Century, caving only in the mid-90's. His paranioa went so far as to declare that every Albanian peasant should have their own bunker, resulting in indestructible concrete Artoo-like mushrooms decorating the countryside pretty much everywhere you look.

Apart from the beautiful countryside (bunkers aside) and coastline, the exquisite food (take the best of Italian and Greek with a dash of Turkish), and the warm and friendly people, Albania seems to have a couple of odd ideosynchrasies. For example, they appear to have a passion for half-completed concrete structures (maybe a legacy of the bunkers), as well as ridiculous over-capitalisation in everything they construct (think a 4-story boat-shaped house, concrete castles in the middle of nowhere, and bars & restaurants in small villages that would not look out of place in Manhattan).

Our journey began in Tirana, and our first indication that we were on a path less travelled was that immigration were so surprised we were here for tourism that they gave us a discount on our visas. Upon leaving Mother Theresa airport (who knew she was Albanian?), we entered a world of benign chaos, where apparently the only vehicle permitted is a Mercedes, and Russian road rules apply, whether it's being forced off the road by a quasi-official convoy, or sitting in traffic for hours.

Denis met us at lunch, and we explored Tirana, the afternoon power outage cutting short a tour of Albinvest's premises. That evening, after another another heart-stopping meal (we were SO happy to drink reasonably-priced good wine), we explored the local nightlife... Until this point it had escaped my attention that Albania is a predominantly Muslim country, but a local girl's "I'm here with my cousin and can't leave without him, please don't cause problems" to one of our teams' amorous advances rapidly brought this point home. The rapid music shift from country line-dancing to greek circle-dancing to arabic belly-dancing music in another establishment was a gentle reminder that Albania isn't quite as culturally homogenous as Moscow.

The following morning we headed to the coast, our government saloon affording us the best police attention affordable. We spent the day eating, drinking, and meandering down the coastline, spending the evening staying under heavy guard at the President's summer dacha in the town of Vlore, hosted by one of Denis' gracious oligarch-like friends at his restaurant.

A beautiful sunrise and Communist-era dining experience later, our convoy took to the mountains, heavy cloud lending a mysterious medieval aura to the dramatic mountain vistas and hair-raising hairpin bends. Apparently Denis' friend was so influential he was able to break the Mercedes-only law of Albanian vehicle ownership (or at least possession). We visited a lovely hotel, had a delicious meal of local goat & other delicacies, and headed to the south coast (where Cam was thrilled to receive Greek GPRS access for his blackberry).

By early evening we had arrived in Berat, an ancient fortified town dominated by the castle in which people still live. We explored the castle (partially by braille in the fading light) but were disappointed that the frog we found living in the castle would not turn into a beautiful princess despite a piss, er, I mean a kiss.

The late-night rally back to Tirana left haunting images in my dreams as donkeys, small children, potholes large enough to swallow our car, and misplaced bunkers swept past in our headlights and reminded me of computer games in days gone by. Thankfully there was enough Raki (although not enough cities beginning with "E") to distract us.

After such a gastronomic, cultural, and entrepreneurial weekend, we collapsed onto the plane back to Moscow, with just one question remaining... What was that strange Chinese transistor thing in the back of Denis' car? I guess it's a question that will remain unanswered.

In the meantime, anyone who can rustle up a busload of unsuspecting & adventurous tourists who are willing to hit the mountains of Southern Albania, there's a success fee in it for both of us...

The photos, as always, are here.