Sunday, February 26, 2006

There are lesssons everywhere

The photograph to the left is filled with lessons. I shot it while I was riding in a taxi and we stopped for a red light.

There's also a mystery question for anyone who wants to accept my challenge. More about that later.

It the camera I have snapped the moment I asked it to snap, you would have seen a red light and the amber light lit at at the same time. That would have made the picture better, in terms of lessons.

I had to ask the driver to wait, because I wanted a picture or the sign. You see, they give drivers a hint that the light is about to turn green by adding the amber light. It's sort of like the starting lights at a drag race. People can rev up and punch it when it turns green. Of course, some see it as an invitation to burst through even before the green appears.

To man in the High Desert where I live, the signal lights mean, "Look left. Look Right. No police in sight? Punch it!"
They just have their own ways here.

The second lesson here is in how to understand a language you've never learned. Take a few minutes if you like and see if you can learn how to translate the Serbian and if you can learn to understand how some Cyrilic characters work. This is a great lesson, I think. Don't read further if you don't want to know.

OK, first, did you figure out what Pionirski Park is? It seems like a no brainer. You can almost figure out how to pronounce the vowels, because maybe it sounds a bit like a word in English.

Good work. Now look at the Cyrilic characters above each of the words in Serbian. What's cool about this is that it shows you, letter-by-letter, what the Cyrilic translation is. If you have any curiousity at all, you can figure out a half a dozen Cyrilic letters. I think it's cool, because the more of them I learn, the easier it is for me to get around in the city.

OK, here's your quiz: What's this Cyrilic word translate to? PECTOPAH

You should be able to do it.

The best lesson is the lighted number -- 097. You should be able to figure that one out also. And when you do, you'll have an answer to a question that many have asked: Are the Serbians catching up with us technologically? My response is, if we had signs like this on in Southern California, people wouldn't have to act like such jerks. They wouldn't panic as much.

Here's the challenge. Based on the sign and its contents only, tell me what the 097 represents. Here's a hint. The sign has nothing to do with that particular intersection or to do with general traffic-related stuff. The number is controlled at a remote location. The bonus question is: What is the word to the right of the 097? You cannot exactly translate it from Cyrilic based upon the characters you learn about in the photo. You could either find a place on the Internet that shows you how to convert the characters -- or you might guess based on the mystery question. E-mail me with the answer at

Just so you'll know, these are the kinds of challenges I give when I teach groups of wannabe investigators. It's sort of a screening test. In other words, if the puzzle doesn't puzzle you enough to make you obsessed with solving the puzzle, then you're probably not good investigator material. But that doesn't make you a bad person.

I'm home for a week and I'm reflecting on some most interesting thoughts and observations. I'll share those with you later.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Stuff I'll remember while I'm home for a week

I'm just minutes from being picked up to go the airport for a one-week return to California's High Desert and some time in downtown L.A. and Burbank.

Becuase I was ill for a while, I had to scramble the rest of this week to get my work done at the TV station. My sometimes silly journal/blog had to take the back seat.

This time around -- a sort of hodge-podge of images. The pictures include a plaque that's not far from the RTS Television building I wrote about before this was a blog. RTS is the government-run TV/Radio station the NATO planes bombed during the Kosovo confilict.

My Serbian associate, Boske, made it a point to show me this plaque to show me that it honors the people who died in the attack. It names them all and makes the clear point that none of them were journalists. They were technicians and make-up artists and management people and the like. His point is that it was wrong to go after an media outlet. There's so much more to this story, but there's not the time now.

Nearby is the only Russian Orthodox Church in Belgrade (maybe in all of Serbia? I can't remember).

And to the left of the view you see of the Russian Church is a regular Orthodox Church that's quite impressive.

As you can tell, in the time I have I can't fill the space with enough words to get me to the next picture, so you'll have to figure all this out.

The next little series is about how a finicky eater survives in a place where most "normal" people would be in food heaven -- especially meat eaters.

But I have to find just the right combination of pasta and meat and tomato sauce of some kind -- but it can't have any surprises in it or anything like that.

The solution I found when I needed a quick and cheap meal (why pay a lot of money to eat alone -- especially when you leave most of the stuff behind?) was to go to a little fast food place near my hotel and wait until the kid behind the counter realized I don't speak Serbian. The he or she would call out to someone back out of sight and a more English-friendly teenager (they seemed like teenagers) would come out and help me make the dish I want -- or make the elements of the dish.

You see, to get the pasta, I'd have to order a combination that's pictured in a sign above the counter -- don't need Serbian for that.

Then, I'd point off the the right to where they have this delicious-looking mystery meat spinning on a verticle spit thing (just look at the picture please). Turns out it's the meat they use for their Giro sandwiches (a quick point to the people who didn't like the prior title of this blog: I had no clue this was the "Hero" sandwich I'd heard people talk about for years. It was only recently that Mr. Brilliant figured out the there wasn't a gyro sandwhich. Although if this one spun faster then - - - never mind.).

So I order the giro "samo messo" (that means "only meat"), then they bring me a separate paper bowl of the giro meat. I sit down, mix the two dishes and sleep well that night.

Now, I must head downstairs, pay my bill and hope that the tall guy who brought me here three weeks ago is here on time and that I can make it to the car without needing a coat. I packed it. It's always warm on a plane and it'll be warm in Ontario, California, when I arrive in about 22 hours.

Stay tuned. By the way -- no time to proof this. Send me an e-mail and I'll fix it when I get home.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Rumors of a major event

His name is Ratko Mladic and, for a decade, he's been the most wanted man in the Balkans. Today, Belgrade television stations are reporting that he's finally in custody.

I had a meeting scheduled with the TV news team for whom I'm consulting, but we had to cancel it. The team members spent last weekend at Mladic's birthplace in Bosnia in anticipation of his arrest. Now they're putting together the whole story. Our meeting will have to wait.

Rumors. There always rumors -- rumors that government officials in Serbia have finally caved in to the pressures and sent police or arrest the man many believe was responsible for the worst case of genocide in the Europe since World War II. Today, journalists here a nearly certain that the arrest took place.

Government officials in Belgrade, many believe, have finally decided that the price the pay for protecting Mladic is too high -- it could prevent Serbia from becoming a member of the European Union.

There have been numerous reports that Mladic recently was living in Belgrade. Until just months ago, reports say, he was actually receiving a military pension from the Serbian government. There's been speculation that his arrest could spark a battle between the police here and the military.

It's all about lustration. That's everyone's concern here. Are there still remnants of the old regime still functioning below the surface of Serbian government? Are there secret military units still carrying out the wishes of ex-officials in hiding or in custody?

If you haven't been paying attention to events here in the Balkans, you should keep an eye on this story -- or possible story. Mladic's involvement in the Bosnian war and the "ethnic cleansing" will astound you. Here's a link that will give you a good, quick background:

When I was first in Bosnia in April of 2000, I was able to sit down and briefly talk with a one of the bravest people I've met. His name is Zeljko Kopanja. He ran a radio station and a newspaper in Banja Luka, the capital of the Serbian portion of the now-divided Bosnia. During the war, it was pure hell for the Muslims. Bosnia's Serbian army destroyed Muslim mosques that were hundreds of years old. They killed. They raped. They pillaged.

Even though Kopanja is Serbian, he wrote about the corruption of the Serbian-controlled government and even wrote about atrocities the Serbs committed against the Muslim minority.
Before long, the death threats started coming -- not just against him, but against his wife and son.

Kopanja refused to censor himself. On October 22, 1999, he got in his car and turned the key.

The explosion was meant to kill him. Somehow -- maybe because he's so tough or stubborn -- he survived. When he emerged, he had no legs.

When I and my fellow trainers met Kopanja, he was beginning to walk on his prosthetic legs. He was still publishing. In fact, as I recall, he didn't miss a single issue.

It reminded me that its easy to take for granted the freedom of the press we enjoy in the United States.

When I meet any journalist -- whether it's in Bosnia, Serbia, Armenia, the Ukraine, El Salvador or Mexico -- I'm humbled.

The people reporting on the possible arrest of Mladic here in Serbia are pioneers. Most of them have had no journalism training and many or them are earning in a year what journalists in the U.S. earn in a week -- that is, if they end up getting paid at all.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Where did my weekend go?

I certainly got to know the landscape of my hotel room. My eyes have been very sensitive to the light, so I didn't even watch the television. On Saturday evening, I told myself that I really needed to eat. I ordered some room service food. The poor waiter had to deliver it in the dark. The only thing I consumed was the orange juice. My brain said one thing -- my body overruled everything my brain said.

This morning, Sunday, I went downstairs for breakfast and only ate a little cereal in milk, two little glasses of orange juice and a banana. Then I stepped outside the hotel for a short time. Down the street (there are no cars allowed in the area of my hotel) I could see one of the walkways bathed in sunlight.


Doesn't sunlight have some kind of vitamin in it? Isn't it theraputic or something?

When I stepped into the first sunlight I remember seeing in Serbia I felt just a little bit healthier. I sat on a concrete bench and watched the people walking by. It was a totally different view than what I'm used to seeing either on the way to work or in the evening.

There are a lot of hot spots for young people, so the kids (late teens and older) are everywhere. The attention to fashion here is about 100 times what it is in the U.S. -- at least for the women. There are usually a lot of girls paired up and sitting in the little coffee houses and pubs. Someone here told me that the men are intimated when it comes to approaching them because the guys don't make enough money to entertain the women in the manner the men believe the women would expect.

But Sunday morning was about older people and families and dogs and average looking folks. It was refreshing. There was a young man standing near where one of the under-the-street walkways rose to ground level. He was selling delightful flowers wrapped on paper. It amazed me that so many people were buying.

I didn't have my camera with me, or I would have shared the image with you. To keep up with the visual tradition, I've included a picture of the building that houses the IREX office. That's where I walk every morning during the week.

Other observations? One of the most refreshing thing about being in Belgrade is the almost absolute absence of SUVs, big pick-up trucks, hot-rod Hondas driven by young bucks. I saw one Hummer in the mall's parking garage. It had California plates -- Ontario.

I've only seen two black people and two Asian people. It reminded me a little of the time I visited my cousin in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I was uncomfortable because of the complete lack of ethnicity.

This will have to do for now. I'm still very weak and not even sure I'll be well enough to go to work tomorrow. I can handle the discomfort, but it's the plumbing problems that accompany the ailment that troubles me. I sort of don't want to be far from a safe place. 'Nuf said.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A brewing controversy over identity. Let's address it here.

Don Ray is the luckiest person on the fact of the earth -- even though, sometimes he believes he's stupid and crazy. Enough of the third person stuff.

I'm lucky because I have the best friends and family that any human being has ever had. Many of them are on the journal list I send by e-mail to alert them that I've posted something new on this exploratory blog.

More than a dozen of you have made comments about my playful, self-efacing use of the words "stupid," "idiot," "crazy" and others I can't remember.

I'm caving in for now because one of my most treasured friends said he won't even read any posts that have such words in the title -- much less in the actual posting. Since I had named the blog Don Ray's Stupid Adventures, that would make it impossible for him to get to read anything.

So it's here and now that I'm going to explain myself regarding this issue and hope that, in the end, my friends and family will still want to take vicarious pleasure in my silly (oops) -- most serious and important online publication.

But first, a brief story about last night. Stay tuned. I'll get back to the silly and stupid and crazy issues following the anecdote.

I was tired last night -- exhausted. I'm not sure if it was because if the mental energy I've been putting into the consulting assignment, the exercise I'm getting, the fact that I'm sweating like a pig (I'm sorry, I'm glowing a lot) in the oven-like atmosphere inside my hotel room, the TV station and any other building I enter. I'll probably tell that story later.

Anyway, I was checking my e-mail and doing a little bit of research in to Staro Sajmiste (if you don't know about this, let me know and I'll post more about it on the blog for the new readers) when a very loud series of reports echoed through the buildings that cluster around this hotel. It was rapid fire -- as if it were coming from a semi-automatic rifle -- an M-16 or an AK-47 perhaps.

There were nine consecutive "bangs". I counted them, I guess to determine how many rounds were in the weapon's magazine. Then there was a series of bangs of a different nature that sounded as if someone else was firing back with another type of weapon.

I'm an absolute coward (check that -- I have a low threshhold for the survival instict), so when I could see the flash coming from out the window and down below my second floor (they call it the first floor here) room, I darted to the bathroom so that I could put at least one solid wall between me and the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to my little balcony. I would have gone straight out into the hallway had I had a stitch of clothing on (remember, it's really hot in my room).

From the bathroom, I stuck my head out cautiously to see the flashes as the explosions grew into what sounded like the shootout at OK Corral. Then, I noticed that some of the flashes were lighting the area in different colors. Tracers, maybe? (Those are bullets that burn as they travel so that the shooter can know where they're going). But I've never seen tracers in such a vivid blue or in green. Something didn't look right. Besides, I never heard the sound of the bullets hitting anything.

I cautiously walked back into the main part of my hotel room -- lights out, of course. I always function better in the dark. There are two sets of large, double, glass doors that open to the balcony. But beyond them are two more doors made of wood that work like venician blinds -- blinds that only allow me to see down -- not up.

That, of course, is why all of the flashes appeared to be coming from below. I opened the two glass doors and then slightly opened one of the wooden doors -- but only slightly. No, I didn't think that the thin wooden blinds would protect me from bullets from a high-powered rifle -- I didn't have any clothes on, remember?

That's when I discovered the most beautiful fireworks show that was, conveniently, being staged somewhere beyone, but between the buildings behind my hotel. My relief was quickly eclipsed by the realization that the stupid (can I refer to my camera as stupid) digital camera I bought for this trip had a setting somewhere in it for fireworks. What the heck. What a great picture it would make. But where was my camera? In my pants pocket. The pants were on one of those silly (live with it, OK?) racks that I see pictures of in the in-flight, you-must-have-one-of-these-gadgets magazines. You know the little buttler thing that allows you to hand your coat and tie and stuff.

The pants were covered by the shirt I wore yesterday. The shirt was covered by the overcoat I wore over the shirt yesterday (but only when I was outside in the rain -- otherwise, I don't like to wear a coat). I finally found the pants and then found the right pocket. I had to go back into the bathroom where the light was on so that I could see the settings on the camera.

When I got the camera ready, I started toward the wooden doors but remembered again my lack of clothing. The quickest remedy was the overcoat. I actually laughed at the thought that I'd never worn an overcoat before without underclothing on the inside. I thought about how strange it might look to people looking out their window. A flasher, by all definitions.

OK, I had the camera, I had the overcoat on and I opened the door. Before I could reach up with the camera, the final rocket red glare and the bombs burst into the night.

Here's the picture I got:

You'll have to use your imagination or Photoshop to experience what I almost experienced. Sorry that it's a bit out of focus -- the camera was probably saying, "What in the heck are you asking me to shoot? You said you wanted fireworks. Where are the fireworks?" Just so you can see what the view is, I took another picture this morning (with regular clothing on). I don't know what the building are -- we're just seeing the backs of them.

A Most Clever Segue

You must admit that this true story is a true story about a silly, crazy and, in stupid, in a fun way, person. You must admit it! When I told my wife about it this morning, she couldn't stop laughing. She told me (in Chinese) that I'm stupid (ben) and crazy (Shing Jing Bing). And she laughed some more. She reminded me that I'm living up to the nickname she sometimes gives me: Chu Bah Jia (I don't know that spelling). Chu Bah Jia is a character in a legendary folk story from China. The main character is a crusading monkey. Chu Bah Jia is the monkey's good-hearted but bumbling sidekick. Oh, he's a pig.

So there you have it. The woman I love more than anyone in the world sees me as a good-hearted and well-intentioned -- and lovable -- pig who tries hard but always screws things up. For centuries, Chinese people of all ages have enjoyed loving and laughing at Chu Bah Jia.

That leads me to the discussion about "stupid" and "crazy" and that stuff.

Anybody who knows me knows that I'm not really stupid. Sometimes I can be marginally brilliant. The crazy part requires interpretation. Am I insane? Not really (knock on wood). Do I do crazy things? Absolutely -- at least based upon what "conventional wisdom" would dictate. Should I be laughing at myself? I say, "Yes!" Should it bother people? I don't think so.

But apparently it does. I believe it bothers them because they care a lot about me and they don't want others to jump to the conclusion that I'm seriously stupid or crazy and that it might hinder my career or jeopardize the respect people should be giving me.

The truth is that I can hinder my career very will without calling myself names or laughing at myself. Every day I jeoparize my the respect people should be giving me. Why? Because I'm different and I do things that others would never think of doing and I don't want to change. Here are some examples of how I'm different:

I've never tasted a pickle. I've never tasted mustard (knowingling). I've never had a drink of coffee. I would never apply for unemployment -- even though I've paid into it and I deserve it. I almost refuse to go to the most popular tourist spots in any new place I'm visiting. I make friends with taxi drivers and Gypsy kids and waiters and fast-food workers. I walk outside in the snow in 28 degree weather (f, not C) with a short-sleeve shirt and my emergency jacket draped over my arm. People certainly look at me as if I'm crazy. Am I? I have a stepbrother who's on this list who lives in North Dakota and wears shorts to work in the dead of winter. Is he crazy? I don't think so.

I'm an expert in finding out information about just about anybody, but I would never look up anything about a friend. I'm an expert on privacy and yet I wear my life on my sleeve. I'm open to anybody who wants to come into my life. I don't like to wear labels -- either symbolic or blatant. I see things other people don't see and I understand things others cannot understand.

And yet I can't read very well. I can't learn the most simple things about how a computer works. I love music and I can make music that pleases me (whether it's on a piano, a guitar, a harp or my beloved Clavietta), but no matter how hard I try, I cannot read music.

Despite all of these strange characteristics and more, I am blessed with having the most wonderful people surrounding me. My sister is on this list. She knows how stupid I can be. Ask her about the club she formed with all of my friends. She called it WCTU. They wouldn't allow me to be in the club unless I could tell them what WCTU stood for. I asked, but all she would tell me is "We can't tell you!"

If I wasn't so stupid, I'd have immediately figured it out. We both still laugh about it.

Others on this list know me pretty well and understand that I'm different. Actually, it's a most interesting assortment. There are journalists, copy editors, editors and publishers on the list. There are people who once worked in law enforcement and some who still do. There are judges on the list. There are Vietnam veterans (at least one who served with me in Vietnam), former students of mine, former teachers of mine, neighbors, psychologists (they really know me!), former news sources, friends from my childhood, kids from school (one of them lives in Texas and I treasure his friendship -- even though I don't believe we've spoken to each other face-t0-face since elementary school), former associates and a whole lot more.

Each of these people would tell you something different about me and most would tell you that, in some ways, I'm different. Some would smile and say, "Yes, he can be stupid and crazy." Others might not -- they wouldn't want to say that about their friends.

But I believe in being democratic, so I'm allowing those on my mailing list to suggest the title for my blog. Please e-mail me your suggestions. I'll select the top five (based upon theme) and put them up for a vote.

I'll also republish your comments, if they're poignant and telling -- and if you give me your permission. I won't use your name unless you insist. Then, I'll change the name of the blog to the winning entry. And I'll bring you a gift of your choice from Serbia (within limits).

So please, let's get this controversy past us so I can go about my business of being curious and getting lost and acting in a way that some people would say is crazy or stupid.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Novi Beograd -- New Belgrade

Much of what was west of the Sava River before World War II was swamp land. People from Old Belgrade would cross the river to go to the only attraction, the sajmiste, or fairgrounds. As I mentioned in my earlier posts by e-mail, the Nazis used what is now called Staro Sajmiste (Old Fairgrounds) as a concentration camp and death camp where, according to some people I've talked with, some 40,000 people died. They were Serbians, Gypsies and Jews. There are two monuments there, but apparently there's little other effort to protect the area from falling into ruins or from being demolished in favor of industry and business.
After the war, the communist government decided to turn the swamp land beyond Staro Sajmiste into Novi Beograd -- New Belgrade. Television station for which I'm consulting, B-92, is in New Belgrade. The difference between Old and New Belgrade is as stark as you can imagine. The streets are flat and the blocks are square and the buildings -- even those built in the area's early development are sterile and, as my associate here, Boske, says, "Boring!"

One of the oldest looking buildings is the traditional Orthodox Church. They built it, however, about two years ago. Here's an interesting point, because New Belgrade was a communist invention, this church was the very first religious building of any kind in Novi Beograd. In the background, is the Westgate twin towers. One side is business -- the other side is made up of apartments. During the sanctions against Serbia between 1992 and 2000, the middle class pretty much disappeared. People in the office here tell me that the average monthly income was equal to about $5.00. Boske tells the story of how the electricty in the Westgate residential building went out and people had to use the stairs. The people who were near the top of the 29 floors simply couldn't make the trek. The solution? A man on the 11th floor turned his apartment into a grocery store. People above and slightly below him would place their orders. He would buy what they needed and pay workers to carry everything up to his apartment. Then, the people living near the top -- especially the elderly -- would only have to make a short climb up or down for their needed food and supplies.

There are glimpses of the past that still pass through, however, but if you dropped in from the sky, you'd hardly know New Belgrade from Orange County or Dallas or Phoenix.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Heart, brain, soul? Which do you trust?

That 17-year-old girl who approached us at the food court at the mall. What are the chances that she's a pawn in a most clever conspiracy to trick good-hearted people into giving up their money? Two of my friends on the Don Ray Journal list -- both veteran law enforcement folks -- are rightfully skeptical.

Is the picture she showed us really her sister? Was the letter she presented really written by the president of the association that works to improve the conditions of the Gypsies? Was her ID card another part of the sophisticated scam?

What about the bank account? What about the cell phone number of the group's president and his e-mail address?

I asked the Serbian producer I'm working with it anyone would be so stupid as to be connected with a bank account into which people place their donations -- when the money isn't really going to the stated cause. He said that, in Serbia, it wasn't likely that anybody would check.

After a few minutes of net surfing, I was able to find all of the contact information for the man whose name is on the letter and ID card. His e-mail address was different. So was the phone number.

I sent an innocent e-mail message to both addresses. I expect to hear from one of them tomorrow. Today is a national holiday in Serbia, so it's likely nobody was there at his office.

So will he confirm that the little girl is who they say she is? Or will he quickly warn me not to encourage people to deposit money into the account?

Journalistically speaking, it has the makings of a great story -- whether it's legit or it's a scam. If it's legit, it's a remarkable develoment in the way the Gypsies try to take care of their children. If it's a scam, its boldness and precision is worth writing about.

I don't believe it's going to take a lot of investigating to find out which way this will turn out.

In the meantime, I'm going to try to post a picture -- just to see how difficult it is.

That was fairly easy and painless. Now I need to hear from you -- either in the comments part of this blog (no I don't know how it works) or by e-mail to me directly. Is it a scam or an opportunity to reach out to someone in need? Let me know.

Also, let me know your thoughts about this blog approach. I figure that when I figure out how it works, I'll be able to do some nice things with it. Let me know.

Let's see if we can cut down on your mailbox clutter

Now you get a chance to see how inept I am at posting things to a blog. A lot of people are saying that they're enjoying what I've been rambling on about. Some are very politely telling me that they don't have time to read what I'm sending -- or they don't have the space to store all of my annoying pictures.

So I'll see if this free blog program is as easy as they say it is.

I'll have to be careful to remember that anybody can read this, so I'll keep my opinions and judgments to myself. Heck, I should be doing that anyway. For the people on my donrayjournal mailing list, I'll send short messages and add the link to this each time.

As you already know, I have to 'speriment with anything before I learn it. It's certain I'll make stupid mistakes and look like a fool. I count on you, my friends and relatives to put me in my place.

Now I'm going to post this and see what it looks like.