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The Observer, March 27

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On a bright, warm day in the middle of March, The Observer headed out to Lake Maumelle. The occasion was not a sailing or fishing trip, but rather a tour of the lake with a group of officials from Tajikistan, a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia. The Tajiks have some water issues — poor infrastructure and harsh climate conditions impede delivery — so they dropped into Arkansas to see how we quench our people's thirst.

The trip was run by Walter Nunn of the Arkansas Council for International Visitors. Nunn brought along plenty of caps to ward off the sun, which yielded the amusing spectacle of dark-suited foreign dignitaries donning the colors of the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls. (The Observer got an equally silly hat that said “U.S. Space Camp.”) After an initial tutorial on lakefront development, fed through a translator, it was off into the boat.

The captain, Chuck Blair of the Grand Maumelle Sailing Club, took charge of his ship immediately and made sure everyone had life-vests. The Observer was a bit of a straggler; Blair turned to us and said, “Do you speak English?”

“Are you joking?” The Observer responded. It was a fair question. We were, after all, on a boat full of Russian speakers.

The Observer knows a little Russian, though we realized we've dropped a few grades in fluency when we attempted a conversation with Sherali Akhmadzhonovich Shermatov, director of the state water subsidiary. Shermatov was clearly the freest spirit and the most approachable of the bunch — he had earlier jumped out of the cabin to stand atop the boat's prow. He and The Observer came to some sort of stilted agreement that nature is beautiful.

After two hours on the lake and numerous explanations about water volume, water depth, water usage, and other sundry topics, we returned to shore. Was the trip useful to the Tajiks? They responded heartily that it was. So keep your eye on Tajikistan water news — it may just bear the mark of Arkansas.

The Observer, thanks to a friend who lives and breathes basketball, got to go to the dance Friday night. The NCAA tournament at Alltel sure livened things up around here starting last Thursday: Police with sirens blaring escorted the team buses across the bridge to the arena; a band from Memphis played at a pep rally for the fans of that top-ranked team, who created a sea of blue in North Shore Park and in the arena. Fans enjoyed the break between games at Cregeen's beer garden, which, like all the food vendors near the arena, was packed. It felt like a big city, Argenta did.

Thanks to a bigmouth coach who said last week they might not play Arkansas next season if they weren't treated right at the Alltel tournament, the Texans — even the Texas band — were booed loud and long as they entered the court on Friday. Rick Barnes, the blustering Texas coach who later insisted that when he said “I'm serious” he was kidding, had a police escort. Even the cheerleaders from Austin Peay, whose team was about to get smushed by Texas, showed solidarity with Arkansas: They called the Hogs.

One of the few non-food merchants in the area was visited by a group of ladies from Hot Springs Village recently. They'd just arrived and were so excited, expecting to find a street lined with shops and a bustling riverwalk a la Austin. They thought they'd make a day of it.

They could have if they had been in the market for, say, beer or artwork. Unfortunately, they weren't.

How were these ladies misled? The Observer looked at the PR the city puts out for clues. A new website, rockintherivermarket.com, a Convention and Visitor's Bureau product, has a bit of puffery, referring to the district's night life, restaurants and “specialty shopping.” When pressed for details, however, by a click on its shopping link, a short list came up, and it didn't even include Ten Thousand Villages. It did include, however, the gift shop at the MacArthur Museum of Military History, which, no offense, is minute. And don't forget the Coin and Stamp Shop at 7th and Main. Those suggestions seem a little off — by seven or eight blocks at least.

The Downtown Partnership's online guide to shopping downtown tries harder, with a list of all businesses downtown — circa 2005. The attractions included such tourist traps as Bill's Lock and Safe and Refrigeration and Office Supply.

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