Tajik Shake Down

As a continuation on the previous post, I want to tell you about returning to Dushanbe from the Pamirs. Mikey chose to stay in the Pamirs a few more days, so I headed to Dushanbe alone. As mentioned, there are two ways to travel by road to Khorog from Dushanbe. On my return trip the driver chose to go through the Rasht Valley. This is a region that has experienced some internal instability since our arrival to Tajikistan. Because of this, there is a heightened military presence in the region. This was visible in the amount of checkpoints we went through.

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
Me: Yes

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.


Looking at Afghanistan

Driving to and from Khorog is an amazing experience! There are two routes to travel. On our way there we took the Southern route through the Kulab region. The president of Tajikistan is from Kulab, which has resulted in a lot of money being funnelled to this region: the road was very nice, the fields were well irrigated and bountiful, the homes were well built...the list of niceties is numerous.

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.


A link to Buzkachi Photos

Another weekend...another Buzkachi Match!

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 :)


To the Roof of the World we go

This week has been a busy one for Mikey and me.
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
2) Kindergarten
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.


Buzkachi Season has Begun!!!

This weekend Mikey and I had our first buzkachi experience. For those of you who don't know what buzkachi is, I will attempt to explain. There are two goals in buzkachi, we witnessed a goal to be deliniated by two tires barried half way into the ground, approx. 15 feet apart. The players can be as many men on horseback as show up to play. The prizes can be big, so the competitors are often in the 100s. The ball, if you will, is a beheaded goat that is soaked in a barrel of water overnight, the average weight 40 kilos. The aim of buzkachi is to pick up and carry the be-headed, water logged goat through the goal. This becomes difficult when 100+ men are all trying to do the same thing for the glory and prizes. At the buzkachi match we attended prizes ranged from rugs, horses, goats, cows, and money (the largest prize was awarded to the final goal, it was $500, a horse, and a cow). A prize is given for each goal. As we were leaving I witnessed someone transporting their prize home, a goat in the trunk of their car.

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.


Bike Rides

For the past two Sundays Mikey and I have picked a direction to ride outside the city. Our first Sunday, we headed East towards Hissar. Hissar is the location of an ancient fort that is in the process of having it's entrance rebuilt. We have read that on certain holidays, buskachi matches take place inside the old fort, pictured to the left. We will keep this in mind for the future.

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 past weekend, we rode our bikes into the Varzob gorge region, it's pretty, really pretty. The mountains around Dushanbe are becoming snow capped, while in the city it remains quite warm.

And at the end of each ride it's always good to return home...Dushanbe :) Mikey and I have just found an apartment that we will be moving into soon, it is located on the same street as the botanical gardens... the best place in the city to go for a run. Things are coming together!

Welcomed Surprises, St. Mary's Style

Living in Dushanbe, life is unpredictable. Last week Mikey was at the US Embassy, in the cafeteria Mikey literally ran into a St. Mary's College professor of ours, Michael Cain. Much to our surprise and good fortune Prof. Cain is in Dushanbe for a month doing research on small hydro-electric projects in Tajikistan. As Mikey's Fulbright is also a project involving water, it has been a wonderful coincidence. Prof. Cain's enthusiasm for meeting with us and assisting us while he's in town reinforces to me how lucky we are to be alumni of St. Mary's. To the right is a photo of Prof. Cain and Mikey in front of a bank, the dollar bill signs were too good a photo opportunity to pass up.


Tajikistan is great! Mikey and I had a very fun and funny Halloween, celebrated on Saturday the 3oth. Mikey started his holiday as he does every Saturday morning at 7am playing futbol with his team. I spent my morning cooking two large and delicious apple pies for the party we would attend later in the day. The next part of our day was to finalize our costumes. Mikey was a Tajik Sportsman, complete with a gold medal and the Tajikistan Olympic team warm ups, and non-traditional short shorts. I was an ambiguous American Super Hero... a blue towel as my cape, a blue, circular tupperware top as a shield and an aluminum foil sword. See photo below:
Halloween was an interesting holiday to spend in Tajikistan, because not everyone knows about it. So a Tajik Sportsman and Superhero walking down the street isn't easily explainable. Similar to our day with Baby Harbooza, we made a lot of people smile and laugh. In the back of a Marshuka (Mini bus) I announced in English as we were getting out, after receiving a lot of weird looks, "Happy Halloween"! Much to my surprise a man in the front seat responded, "Is Halloween today?... I understand." This made me feel better knowing that this man knew what Halloween was and might explain to everyone else in the bus why we were dressed up.

The highlight of Halloween was attending a University of Central Asia Halloween Dance Party. Let me tell you, Tajik people can dance exceptionally well. I cannot say the same for Mikey and I. Many of the students were very excited that we were in costume attending their party and frequently made us the center of their dance circles. In our not so rhythmic way we danced our hearts out.
From this party we migrated to another Halloween party hosted by the US Marine Corp. At this location we continued to dance and be merry. The international community went all out in being inventive with their costume creations, it was a lot of fun.

The US Marines who are stationed at the US Embassy in Dushanbe are a lot of fun. They host basketball games on Saturdays, volleyball games on Wednesdays, and are among the boisterous members of the Dushanbe Hash House Harriers. Mikey and I have been committed attendants every Saturday afternoon to the local Hash. This week Mikey won the "Hash Shit." This is an award that is won by being the Hash member who does the stupidest thing during the week. I nominated Mikey, and he won, for packing a glass bottle of BBQ sauce in one of our boxes to be sent to Dushanbe. When the box arrived all the contents smelled delicious, as they were marinated in BBQ sauce, as the glass bottle had smashed. Included in the marinated contents were: a years worth of feminine products, batteries, stationary, gifts to be given during our year abroad.
We hope everyone had a wonderful Halloween!!! We would love to hear about your costumes and celebrations :)