A guide to the many cultural oddities members of the U.S. military community encounter while overseas. E-mail your questions to

Sept. 26, 2006Q:On a recent foray into the mountains of Afghanistan, above Asababad, we went into this fairly large village, where I noticed most of the older men were wearing eye makeup. Really! They had black eyeliner on, and some had bright red dyed beards. It was like a whole village of Afghan men made up to look like Capt. Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's character in "Pirates of the Caribbean." What's up with that?

A: Those men probably belong to Pashtun-speaking, Indo-European tribes present on both sides of the border - in Pakistan's lawless tribal territories, as well as in northeast Afghanistan.

They wear kohl on their eyes for the same reason as Jack Sparrow - 'cause it looks so groovy. There are about a gazillion tribes and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, from the Alokozai to the Baluch to the Luris to the Turkomens and then the rest. All rural tribal men seem to have unique customs, from using henna to dye hands and beards, to wearing gaudy, high-heeled sandals called "chablis." It's called "stylin'" man! What do you think they make of ascots, brass-buttoned blazers and loafers?

Sept. 25, 2006Q:Since moving to Germany, we have noticed that nearly all churches have a rooster on the steeple, instead of a cross. What's up with that?

A: In many cultures, the rooster's habit of crowing at dawn made it a symbol of the daily victory of light over darkness and the triumph of good over evil, according to Suzetta Tucker in her book, "ChristStory Christian Bestiary."

The crowing, along with the bird's fiery comb, made the rooster the symbol of fire, the sun and Christ, the light of the world, who announces an end to spiritual darkness and despair, Tucker writes. In fact, in some countries, roosters were sacrificed to the gods, and Germans used to sacrifice roosters during funeral rites, according to Tucker.

But the most popular belief is that the rooster is a symbol for the Apostle Peter.

According to the Bible, during the Last Supper, Christ told Peter that he would deny Jesus three times before the cock crows, but Peter firmly rejected such a notion. After Jesus was arrested and taken away to the high priests, a fearful Peter, in fact, did deny him three times when asked by various people if he knew Jesus. At the rooster's crowing the following morning, Peter remembered Jesus' words and "went out and wept bitterly," according to Scripture.

Because some religions teach that Peter later became the first pope, the rooster also represents papal vigilance. And according to legend, a papal decree from more than 1,000 years ago ordered that a symbol of the rooster be mounted on every church steeple to remind the congregation to not deny their faith as the Apostle Peter did.

Sept. 24, 2006Q:Since I have lived in Seoul, I have witnessed the following: A small child was having a seizure, and a family member grabbed a needle and started pricking his fingers until he came out of the convulsions. Another time I saw an older lady either overcome with grief or heat have the same procedure applied to her digits. What's up with that?

A: The point, if you'll pardon the pun, is to solve the problem using an ancient method - basically acupuncture.

The Korean brand of acupuncture - especially a method developed in the 1970s called Koryo Sooji Chim - says the entire body is represented in a hand. By putting pressure, sometimes in the form of a pinprick, in just the right spot, you can relieve headaches, seizures, back pain, stomach discomfort … pretty much anything.

If someone is having a seizure, the theory goes, it's because of irregularities in blood flow that may put too much stress on the brain. Pricking a finger is thought to restore proper blood flow, bringing the person out of the seizure. Other ailments – like digestive problems - are thought to result from the collision of some out-of-whack energy, or qi. Pricking the thumb, in this case, restores the body's energy balance and puts everything right again.

Does it work? Beats me. Some people swear by it, while others call it a sham. My advice would be to consult a doctor before you start jabbing people with needles.

Sept. 19, 2006Q:Falconry is a huge popular tradition out here in the desert … well, at least that's what I've been told. What's up with that?

A: Falconry has been both a popular hobby and hunting tactic among Bedouin tribes and some Arab tribes for centuries. Nowadays it's largely a sport, but once it was the preferred way of hunting wild game that formed an important part of the desert dwellers' diet.

Here's how it works: Trained birds swoop down on their prey after spotting them in the desert, then return them to the their human masters. Sound easy? Well, not quite. The process - obtaining the bird, training the bird, building a relationship between handler and handled, etc. - takes years to master.

Nowadays, the sport has become so specialized that some countries are issuing passports to hunting falcons. No, really. The government of the United Arab Emirates is trying to crack down on the illegal trade of specialized hunting birds by registering and issuing passports to the falcons. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the traditional trapping of falcons by tribes was sustainable in those numbers, but larger demand has been reducing the number of birds. Now, the three most common falconry birds - the saker, the peregrine and the gyr - are protected. None of them are allowed to be commercially traded or shipped without special documentation.

Now, none of the birds can be taken over international boundaries without "The Falcon Passport."

Sept. 18, 2006Q:My boyfriend told me that there's a festival that takes place in Spain in which they throw a donkey off a tower. They wouldn't do that in this day and age, would they? What's up with that?

A: While, fortunately, we were unable to find mention of a festival calling for a donkey to take a steep plunge, it does appear that up until as recently as the 1990s, an unlucky goat served as the victim of festivities which took place in Manganeses de la Polvorosa, a village in northern Spain, as part of the annual "San Vicente de Martir" festival held in honor of the local patron saint.

According to, the festival takes place on the fourth Sunday in January, when several teens from the village round up a goat, bind him (or her) up, and proceed to carry the animal atop the church's bell tower. The goat is then tossed some 50 feet, to be safely caught, in theory at least, by a tarp held out by the revelers.

The event's roots appear to trace back to a local legend concerning a priest of the town who owned a very special goat indeed. On his travels, the priest would use the milk of this beloved creature to feed the poor and destitute masses. One day, however, said goat wandered into a belfry, and, frightened by the sudden peeling of the bell, she leapt from the tower into street below. Luckily, the goat was caught with a blanket by some townspeople. An annual re-enactment of this event came to denote the kickoff of the Festival of San Vincente.

Not surprisingly, animal rights groups did all they could to see this bizarre rite brought to a halt. By the year 2000, these re-enactments reportedly no longer took place.

Sept. 17, 2006Q:When my husband and I are out sightseeing in Japan or South Korea, I try to find bathrooms with Western-style toilets, but sometimes Asian-style is the only option available. But to me, Asian toilets look pretty much like glorified holes in the ground. What's up with that?

A: OK, this one is just for the ladies. Guys aren't nearly so picky about the shape (literally or figuratively) of their bathrooms.

Now look, ladies: I've been on one too many base tours where the bus stops at a rest area and the American women very conspicuously line up to use the one Western-style toilet, refusing to use the plentiful Asian-style ones. You know what? When you gotta go, you gotta go - and there's no reason you can't use an Asian-style toilet.

Without getting too graphic, here's how it works: You straddle the bowl, facing the end that has a raised hood. Pull your pants down to your knees or maybe a little farther and squat, getting as close as you comfortably can to the hood without touching it. That's to make sure everything's positioned correctly, see. Squat too far back and you're, um, missing the point.

I know, I know - it looks for all the world like your pants are in danger, but they're not. Trust me. When you're done, there usually will be toilet paper (but not always, so it's good to keep a few spare squares in your purse) within easy reach while you're squatting, and the same with the button or lever for flushing.

Now, see? What's so scary about that? It's actually more sanitary than Western-style toilets, as nothing of yours touches anything, you know, germy. If you must use a Western-style toilet, businesses like a department store or restaurant - assuming it's a modern building - are your best bets. Train stations, parks and other more public restrooms often have Asian-style only. But next time you have a choice, give Asian-style toilets a try. That way you'll be ready when there is no choice.

Sept. 12, 2006Q: I've just heard that in Kuwait, they use robots as jockeys in the camel races. Robots? Camel races? What's up with that?

A: We are once again proud to be able to tell you that, indeed, what you have heard — and cannot believe — is true. According to various news reports, the very first camel races in Kuwait to use robot jockeys were held in October 2005.

On that day - and, oh, how we would have liked to have been there - 25 robots made in Switzerland rode racing camels on a six-mile run around the tracks of the Kuwait Camel Racing Club, a popular track about 30 miles outside of the capital city.

"The humanoid riders, specially developed for the purpose," according to one news account, "are the size and shape of small boys and are operated by remote control."

Why robots, you ask? Why not, we say.

According to the news reports, Kuwait turned to the futuristic riders after child jockeys were banned from the sport in response to criticism by human rights groups and the U.S. government.

"[Robot jockeys] will prevent the use of child jockeys and distance Gulf countries from allegations of human rights violations and child trafficking," Sheik Fahd al Jaber al Ahmad al Sabah, the chairman of Kuwait's sports governing body, was quoted as saying.

"It will not be said that there are children from poor countries like Pakistan and India who are being used as child jockeys. We are civilized countries and respect children."

Sept. 11, 2006Q:So, I'm at the San Paolo soccer stadium in Naples, Italy, for a recent preseason soccer tournament, and I notice there are people who stand around the perimeter of the field - all wearing hard hats. It's a soccer stadium, not a construction zone. What's up with that?

A: As crazy at it sounds, at the Naples stadium, it tends to rain - plastic. Yup, hooligan fans litter the field and surrounding running track by tossing plastic bottles from the bleachers. And not just a few - but hundreds of bottles plunged to the field during the recent three-plus hour tournament. And with no seeming rhyme or reason to the stunt. It rained plastic soda and water bottles – some empty and some full - when the Naples soccer team played well, played poorly, or weren't playing at all. So those standing on the perimeter - actually there to keep football fanatics from accessing the field - wore the hard hats for protection.

It's not Naples' finest hour, said a few fans following the 10th annual Birra Moretti tournament, but that's what Neapolitan fans do.

"Yes, that is Naples football. There is no understanding why," said one native, named Massimo. On a side note: The tournament was sponsored by one of Italy's top beer manufacturers, Birra Moretti, and yet not a drop of beer was sold throughout the tournament. After the spectacle of chucking plastic bottles, it kind of made one appreciate the alcohol-free environment.

Sept. 10, 2006Q:Whenever I walk down the street in Japan I notice statues of badgers in front of restaurants. What's up with that?

A. The statues are based on an actual animal, but it's not a badger. It's a tanuki, which scientifically is classified as a kind of dog.

In Japanese folklore, the tanuki was said to have the power to transform itself into other things, often a monk or a tea kettle, and the mischievous little scamp often used its powers to play tricks on people. The tanuki came to be known as a jolly, fun-loving fellow, making him a symbol for the good times a restaurant owner hopes customers will have inside his establishment.

Today's tanuki statues have some common characteristics: There's usually a big straw hat worn at a jaunty angle, a big round white belly, and, um, big other things. Bathing-suit area things. Because apparently that represents good luck, fertility, plenty and other fun stuff. It's part of the folklore, people - I don't make it up.

A tanuki statue usually holds a flask of sake in one hand and a promissory note (hope the debt-holder isn't holding his breath) in the other. I would think that's a practice restaurant and bar owners displaying this statue wouldn't want to encourage, but hey, it's all in good fun, I guess.

Sept. 5, 2006Q:I remember before the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed a couple of huge stone statues carved into caves in Bamiyan. I remember why the Taliban said they did it, but what I don't know is who originally put them up. What's up with that?

A: Though Afghanistan is often described as "isolated," in earlier centuries, many of its central cities lay directly on the Silk Road, the main trade route between the Roman Empire, India and Asia. Long, endless caravans traversed the region, bringing riches to the towns along the path.

One of those towns was Bamiyan, about 150 miles southwest of Kabul.

Sometime during the third and fifth centuries, some scholars say, Buddhist monks living in the area began carving giant statues out of the cliffs near their monasteries. The monks were hermits, living in caves carved into the cliffs, and, according to historians, many of the monks began carving frescoes and other religious decorations into their caves.

The two Buddha statues stood 180 and 121 feet tall once completed.

The main part of the statues were carved directly out of the sandstone, but smaller details were added with mud, straw and stucco, then painted gold and other colors. According to archaeologists, the faces were made from huge wooden casts.

After centuries of being threatened by a succession of warlords - including, at one time, Genghis Khan - being used as an ammunition dump, and being ignored by other factions, the statues were destroyed by order of the Taliban in 1998.

Sept. 4, 2006Q:I recently moved to SHAPE in Belgium and the cows here look as if they've been lifting weights. I've never seen such muscular, big cows! What's up with that?

A: Holy Cow! Look at the loins on that heifer!

That monster white cow with more muscles than Aaah-nold is actually a Belgian Blue.

You see, cows are normally raised either for beef or for milk, and at the turn of the 20th century, farmers in Belgium starting breeding red-pied and black-pied cattle in hopes of raising cows that produced both. But for the next 50 years, the cows were known mostly for their ability to produce high milk yields, according to the Belgian Blue Beef Herd Book.

Then, in the '70s came a decisive turning point! Breeders – without the use of steroids - found a way to build a bigger bull. The result is known as "double-muscling." According to the Herd Book, the monster cows have increased muscle development in the shoulders, withers, back, loins and rump. They have fine yet solid bones, a harmony of lines with round ribs, inclined hindquarters, hidden hips and a tail that looks more like it belongs to a poodle than a cow. In fact, the cows grow so big, that the calves are removed from their mother's womb before birth in order to not stunt the young cows' growth, the Herd Book says.

Yeah, but what's it taste like? Well, chew on this: In an extensive three-year test the Belgian Blue is just as tender and flavorful as the Hereford-Angus beef, but has less marbling and more ribeye area.

So grab your steak knife and Worchestershire sauce. Make mine rare!

Sept. 3, 2006Q.In convenience stores in Japan, I always see a shelf off by itself filled with tiny brown bottles of liquid with colorful labels. What's up with those?

A.Some see that shelf as a medicine cabinet. Whatever ails you, there's sure to be a so-called "genki drink" offering a quick fix.

They come in three categories. There's the energy-boost kind, packed with caffeine and vitamins, favored by salarymen and others who work long hours and need to stay awake for long stretches. Japan's most popular genki (Japanese for "energetic" or "high-spirited") drink, Lipovitan D, falls under this heading. Another category includes various cold and stomach remedies, and the third kind is Chinese herb-based drinks that purport to improve general health and increase virility.

So how do these things taste? I was curious myself, so I grabbed a Lipovitan D for about 150 yen (about $1.30) at a Tokyo convenience store recently for the sake of research. The answer: Sort of like liquefied Flintstones vitamins - fruity and sweet on first impression, but with just enough of that weird vitamin taste to make your face scrunch up a little.

A few minutes after downing the small bottle's contents, I felt the caffeine kick in, big time. I don't know how "genki" I felt. But wired? Definitely.

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