Justin arrived from Mercy Corps Afghanistan in Kunduz. As the bird flies this is approximately 80 kilometers from Shaartuz. Last night he made the comment, that to see how significant the Soviet influence was and is, you just need to cross the border. He is happy to be in Tajikistan. We are happy our American enclave in a region of 100,000 has expanded to 3.
In the video below is Uncle Imimyor and the beautiful family of his side kick Ahmad. This was a feast night to be remembered (and yes, this was our second dinner of the evening)!
I would now like to tell you about the attempted shake down of me. At one checkpoint after giving the soldier my documents I was asked to get out of the car. Since I was located in the back of the land cruiser everyone in the vehicle had to get out too. Once out of the SUV I was asked in Tajik:
Soldier 1: Do you speak Russian?
Me: No, I speak a little Tajik.
Soldier leads me over to a fold out table, I move to the table followed by my driver and another passenger who speaks excellent English and is prepared to translate. The soldiers tell them that I can speak a little Tajik and they need to go hang out by the car. They follow this request.
Soldier 1: Who are you?
Me: I am Jean Allison Church. I am from America. I live in Dushanbe. My husband is a graduate student in Tajikistan.
Soldier 1: What were you doing in the Pamirs?
Me: I looked at the big mountains, I visited a friends family in Barcheed.
Soldier 1: Tourist
Soldier closely inspects my documents
Me: My papers are good
Soldier: ( I don't understand everything but I get the gist) I want 50 somoni ($11) from you
Me: No, Why?
Soldier signs 50 somoni on the table
Soldier 1: Come on, give me 50 somoni
Me: No, Why?
Soldier 1: It is night, you can not travel at night
Me: You are not correct. I have apples, would you like some apples?
Soldier 1: I don't want apples, do you want a persimmon?
Me: /no, I don't want a persimmon
Soldier 1: 50 somoni
At this point I realize Tajik isn't getting me anywhere. We're in a stand off, so I switch to English...
Me: Are we just going to play the waiting game? I am giggling at the ridiculousness of the situation. The soldier is smiling too.
Another soldier walks up...
Soldier 2: Do you have a baby. (Soldier 1 mimes rocking a baby)
Me: I understand, no I don't have a baby.
Soldier 2: How old are you?
Me: I am 30 years old. ( My giggling increases)
I walked away giggling to where my driver and volunteer translator are standing with the other soldiers. I seek council. I explain that the soldier would like me to pay 50 somoni, I am happy to pay it if that's the only way we can continue on the road, but my papers are good. At this point the translator explains to the driver the situation. The driver has a short exchange with the solider attempting to extort money from me, my passport is handed over and we're on way.
Mikey and I have held to our policy: we don't pay bribes 100% of the time. This isn't the first time we've been asked for money from public servants. Part of the issue is that corruption is part of the system. For police in particular, we have been told that their wage is barely livable. Tajik police are like waiters, it's the standard to tip (or bribe, depending on what linguistics you prefer). This is how it's justifiable to pay them so little, the income on paper is not their actual income.
Continuing on to Dushanbe from the Rasht valley we passed the location of the proposed Rogan Dam. This Dam is the proposed location of a large scale hydro electric plant. Who will pay for the construction of the dam and hydro electric plant? That's the multi million dollar question.
At Rogan the roads shifted from 4-wheel jeep tracks to smooth, well laid asphalt. From Rogan back to Dushanbe the roads reminded me of Kulab (the president's region), really nice. The road to Rogan is like red carpet leading potential investors to the promise land, or at least that's what's being sold.
From the Kulab region we transited to the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO). GBAO makes up 50% of Tajikistan's land and is home to 4% of the population. The reason for the small population is that there are more mountains than people... these mountains are big and beautiful! Where GBAO begins the road meets meets the Panj River and the border with Afghanistan also starts.
Until this region it wasn't clear why we had woken up early and gone to the bus depot to reserve our seats 2.5 hours before our land cruiser left for Khorog. Mikey and I had passenger side window seats (the coveted seats) in our land cruiser that was packed liked sardines with 9 full grown adults inside. With window seats we had a clear view of the Panj and the mountains in Afghanistan.
This region of Afghanistan is also called Badakshan. The Tajik and Afghan regions have similar names and are inhabited by the same Pamiri people. The language spoken in the two regions is the same, Shughni (an Eastern Iranian language unrelated to Tajik). The type of Islam practiced is the same, Ismali (the second largest branch in Shia Islamic faith, the Aga Khan is the Ismali Imam). It's funny to refer to it as two regions, because it's really just one region, with a border bisecting it into two. We were told by our host and local resident that before the Soviet Union "We were one, we are the same people. Before the Soviets a brother might live on one side and a sister on the other, there was no difference between us and them." When asked if he had family on the other side, he remarked "No, perhaps, but no, we have forgotten over time."
Visiting this region, it's hard not to contemplate the ridiculousness of borders. It's also hard not to be amazed at some of the things the Soviet Union accomplished. Looking at Afghanistan out the window of a land cruiser I saw villages connected by walking paths. The topography on either side of the Panj is similar. Contemplating what it would take to build roads where the foot paths are in Afghanistan I concluded that it would be a nearly impossible feat. The Soviets executed the impossible on the Tajik side of the Panj, they built roads that makeGlacier National Parks Going to the Sun Road look like an easy construction project. The Soviet Union didn't get everything right, but they did some astounding things.
With roads come resources. This was clear looking at the types of houses on either side of the river. In Afghanistan the houses are built with flat roofs that likely have to be reinforced annually. In Tajikistan where large sheets of corrugated metal are available the houses are built with peaked roofs. Tajikistan is not a rich country, but from what I saw, it's sitting pretty in comparison to its neighbor.
Included below is a video from the Barcheed village where we stayed. You will be able to see the valley that I have been discussing. It should be self evident why thoughts of borders were so prevalent to us while we were in Gorno-Badakshan.
Our photo's of Buzkashi will soon be posted, but in the meantime feast your eyes on these photos taken by Olivie, one of our French companions from last weekend:
Today's match was sweet, I got to ride a Charvando's (competitors) horse around while he was taking a break from the game. I had a grin ear to ear!
We returned home to our neighborhood a buzz, the tandori oven in the courtyard was blazing, and everyone older than 10 years old was beginning the preparation for Eid. Everyone younger than 10 years old was hanging out with Mikey and me. Mikey has won hearts and minds fixing all the neighborhood bicycles. An older woman from my building mistook me for being Iranian today...a fantastic sign...I can't say a lot of things in Tajik, but my sentence structure must be good. My accent is still a little off if someone thinks I'm speaking Farsi, but I'll take it.
Less than 12 hours and we begin our journey to really big, beautiful mountain country :)
I have had a variety of volunteer opportunities since arriving in Dushanbe. Both projects I have contributed to have been working towards creating an infrastructure for the social and educational inclusion of disabled children. Most recently, I worked with Caritas Switzerland on a multi-component grant proposal. This was an amazing learning experience.
With this project I visited one of the two public schools in Dushanbe that provides inclusive education. Under the Soviets special education did not exist, so the idea is a novel one here. I have heard that at least 50% of the Tajik population is under the age of 18. This leaves a lot of kids to be educated. The local school system manages the masses by creating shifts. There are 3 shifts each day (approximately 2 hours each) for 6 days a week. Around 40 students per class. At the school I visited the teacher had amazing control of her students. Working with 120 students per day for 6 days a week, makes Tajik teachers among the most patient people on earth...and the teachers who are willing to put forth the extra energy to provide inclusive education spots are truly worthy of admiration. (Especially when they're making less than $100/month)
The project proposal had 6 components:
1) Early intervention
3) Primary education
4) Community rehabilitation
5) Government support for inclusion
6) Capacity building for NGOs
The hope is that the majority of the objectives set will be accomplished in a two year time frame, and that Tajikistan's government will have a stake in building and maintaining an infrastructure for inclusive education. From the ground level up, change is happening.
As my involvement with this project concludes, I am moving on to other things. I am hoping to start an internship with Mercy Corps in Tajikistan. The internship, if it comes together, will be focused on youth initiatives in two rural regions: Shartuuz and Garm. I am excited to travel outside the capitol city and have more chances to practice my budding language skills.
Mikey and I will leave this Sunday to travel to GBAO, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, home of the Pamir Mountains, this region is where the term "roof of the world" originated. Getting there is suppose to be an adventure in itself. Mikey made a tough decision to pass up a ride on the Aga Khan Helicopter to Khorog in order to stay here and meet with our St. Mary's professor (Michael Cain) to hash out the specifics of his research plan for the year. Things are coming together, and adventures abound.
This Tuesday, November 16th, is Eid Corbone. From what I gather it's a holiday thats celebration is kinda like Halloween and Thanksgiving combined. Halloween because the children go from home to home asking for candy, sometimes singing as they make their requests. I was told "Do not be surprised if the children come early, I mean 7 am early." And like Thanksgiving because every family makes a feast that takes more than a day to prepare. The feasts are shared amongst the community as neighbors visit one another to share in the holiday. Eid Corbone is the holiday where mourning ends. For those individuals who have lost a family member or friend in the past year, this is a day of remembrance and release. We are excited to take part in our first Muslim holiday.
So, how is a goal scored? These are the words that come to mind: chaos, strength, speed, alliances, beating your horse and your competitors with a whip, pure adrenaline, and commitment. Would I go to a buzkachi match again, of course! In fact, Mikey was so enthusiastic he caught a double header this weekend and attended the Sunday match too. Mikey witnessed an act of commitment to the game that goes beyond Super Bowl victory potential! A middle aged competitor was hit hard in the head resulting in a lot of blood. He rode away from the action of the game to clean himself up, how did he do this? He had a young relative pee into his hands and then he splashed the urine on his face (where the cut was) to clear away the blood. Blood is apparently a natural antiseptic, who knew?
Documenting buzkachi is an athletic art for the adrenaline junky. The mob of horses can move in any direction at any time, there is no out of bounds. In order to get good photos, you have to get close to the chaos. Mikey was better at this than I was. Another skill to learn is how to take good photos while sprinting to safety as the horses charge towards you. It will take some practice. Buzkachi season lasts through the winter, we've got time to get better! We will post photos and videos sometime soon.
It is really amazing how quickly the development of Dushanbe transitions into small village communities. We have had the experience that Tajiks are very generous and engaging, especially when you get out of the city. On one occassion, a man we met gave us 3 liters of Pepsi to take with us.
This is a video from our hotel roof in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Nobel Hotel is located in the Sultan Ahmet neighborhood. In the video you will see the Blue Mosque, which is located directly across from the Aya Sofia. As tourists, this was a great location to stage our adventures.
Mikey and I have had a lot of fun this week!
We have started our language lessons with Dr. Abdul Rashid, aka Bobo (Grandpa) Abdullo. Dr. Abdul Rashid is a Persian language scholar/ translator. His English is so-so, which makes him a great teacher of Tajik. With his basic level of English he was able to share with us his love of Condalisa Rice, whom he has a framed photo of. Did you know Condi speaks very good Russian? Commonalities between Condi and Putin: they our loved by Dr. Abdul Rashid and they both speak Russian.
Another funny occurance was after purchasing a very large melon (Harbooza) in the green market we had some arrands to run around town. As we were walking I queried to Mikey, do you think people are staring at me or the melon? This fostered the idea for us to draw a face on the melon. The melon was transformed from fruit in to Baby Harbooza. Baby Harbooza got a lot of smiles from people. As we are minorities in a city of predominately Persian people we stand out. Standing out results in being looked at. With many people looking at us they couldn't help but look at the giant melon we were carrying, when they saw the melon had a face, there was lots of instantaneous laughter. Without language we communicated: not only are we different, we're a little bit odd too, and this we can all laugh about.
When we made it home with Baby Harbooza, our housemates were not home yet. Baby Harbooza was put into Uncle Imimyor's bed... more laughter. Baby Harbooza was delicious!
Dushanbe is a city with wide streets and an abundance of fountains. We have learned the Marchuka (mini-bus) system by trial and error. Our Marchuka drivers have been rightfully concerned at times when we insist on riding in a certain direction. Sometimes we've been lost, and sometimes we've intentionally ridden to the end of the line just to see where it goes.
We've unpacked our bikes, but have done less riding than we do at home. There are a few reasons for this 1) Drivers are unpredictable here! In Tajikistan you don't have to pass a drivers course in order to obtain a license, you just have to buy a license. This creates an environment where not all drivers are playing by the same rules. A story was related to me where a fellow ex-pat overheard his taxi driver stating "The lines (on the road) are for beginners." With this said, I've witnessed some testastorone driven showmanship, but overall the driving is good. 2) It's affordable to ride the Marchukas at 22 cents (1 somoni) a ride. Mikey and I plan to do some longer bike trips out of the city when we have a few days to adventure.
Mikey is meeting with the University of Central Asia staff (one is a fellow U Montana grad) today. He's working on further developing and coordinating his research plans. The University of Central Asia has been helpful in recommending a Tajik language tutor for us and they are also assisting us in looking for an apartment. We should have formal language classes beginning next week. In the mean time...
We've been cramming as much vocabulary into our brains as can fit! Yesturday we got Tajik-English and English-Tajik dictionaries. These were extremely helpful in facilitating conversations between our current flat mates and us. In Dushanbe, we are currently staying in an apartment of a Tajik friend from Missoula, Zor. His Uncle and friend are also staying in the apartment for a few days. Zor's Uncle kicked our butts in chess, it was great fun! And after he let Mikey win an arm wresting contest because he was a guest, Mikey declared this morning "Today begins the witness the fitness regime!" Push-ups every day was the declaration, it's a great goal, but we'll see.
Other language training has been taking place in the park each evening from a gaggle of teenage boys. Notable characters are: Muhammed, a sixteen year old boy, who can do a nearly flawless Michael Jackson interpretation. Faroukh, Muhammed's best buddy, who is shy but is always the first to understand my questions. And a motley crew of university students who are eager to hear English spoken. Out of this group an informal language exchange has developed where we play ping-pong and assist one another in understanding each others language better.
This is the news from here... I promise pictures are coming soon!
Spell check wasn't possible, so please forgive any mistakes I've made.