Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Twenty First Century Style Teaching

Today was a momentous occasion for one set of Tajik students at the university in Khujand. My students at the university will have a test next Monday and we're supposed to get through a TON of curriculum before then. Well, I'm in Dushanbe for the week for the English Access Microscholarhip Teacher Training Conference that I planned and organized so I HAD to leave Khujand and be in Dushanbe. That obviously means I'm not in Khujand to get through the curriculum with the students. Before I left Khujand last week I gave them homework to do every day. They had homework for Saturday, Sunday (day off), Monday, and Tuesday. I told them I'd call them on Wednesday (when the conference was finished) and we'd have class via phone. They were all excited about it when I told them the idea and were intrigued about how such a method could work.

The university system is run by lot of dogmatic, old, Soviet-day reminiscing people who think people learn by rote memorization, drills, and putting words into someone else's mouth. And they micro-manage. When I talked to the head of the Grammar and Translation department at the uni he told me that I would teach by drills and memorization and he demanded that I change my accent to be a British one. After that conversation I refused to work with him. I'm an expert in my field and that's why I'm in Tajikistan; I'm not here to work like a Tajik. I'm here to bring new ways of doing things (gently) to the Tajiks because they can't all go to the West to experience it for themselves.

Before I left Khujand I informed the director of the department I work for that I would be out for the week but would still have class but, since I couldn't be in the classroom I would do it over the phone. That comment got a big fat eye roll from her. I wanted to shout at her "How dare you roll your eyes at my methods you archaic old hag?" but I refrained saying that and thought "It's better to SHOW her how effective this method can be." I'm not saying that the Tajik teachers should use this method because it would be abused but since I'm not a Tajik teacher and my schedule has me doing work in more than one places and more than one city, I think I should be allowed to use it.

Today I called one of my students about 2 hours before official class time and asked her to make sure everyone was rounded up and at the university. She said they were already on their way to the university and were looking forward to having class via phone later on. When I called ALL of the students who are usually there were there ON TIME!! There were 11 of them who showed up even though there was no teacher physically present, but I asked them all to be there, to be on time, and to have their work prepared and they did! I spent 1 1/2 hours on the phone with them reading a particulary difficult story from their curriculum and answering questions about it. I know they were all there because I heard all their voices and would call them by name to read the text or answer questions or define vocabulary. The text they read was really really difficult and even I had to read it 3 times to really understand what was going on. It was only about one and half pages of words, but the language was lofty and unnecessarily descriptive and most of it just confused the students. Because I called them on the phone, we were able to read the text together and discuss it and they understood it.

I ended up spending 1 1/2 hours on the phone with them and I could here that they were all in the classroom the whole time, participating, and listening. It was really an exciting day and they were so happy to still have class even though I wasn't physically there with them. It was a great breakthrough for the Tajiks and tomorrow will be another successful day of discussion.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dorky ELF

Yesterday I flew to Dushanbe from Khujand. While the people were pushing and shoving and shouting and ricocheting off each other to get the registration table I noticed a foreign man with stark white hair standing some people away and his translator was with him who was Tajik. I asked the Tajik man if ALL of these people were going to Dushanbe. His answer was "Hopefully." I had seen the man only from the back and he was dressed really nicely but when he turned and looked at me I actually lost my thoughts for a few second. He was absolutely beautiful!!! I mean beautiful with a square face and a well defined jaw with a dimple in the middle of his chin. He of course had dark hair and dark eyes and five o'clock shadow. I actually cocked my head to the side and just admired his face and then woke myself up and was like "OH pay attention to what he's saying!" I was feeling all good, too, in my big, black, furry "Natasha" coat which makes me look sooo Russian. We chatted for some time and he reminisced about the days when men would let women and children on the plane first. I thought "Oh what a nice man." As it turned out the men don't let women and children on first anymore and people just MOB the check in counter. We were all tightly packed in with no order whatsoever and people had suitcases and bags with them. People who weren't flying were handing off bags of bread for random people to take with them on the flight. Khujand (allegedly) had the best bread in Tajikistan and people have grocery bags full of bread that isn't packaged but that they literally baked in their oven and were handing it to people to take to Dushanbe. I don't understand their system but their bread is pretty good! I digress.

So the nice beautiful Tajik man let me in front of him in line. I didn't see him on the flight and didn't see him again untl we were collecting our bags. We chatted and just talked about what we were doing in Tajikistan. I asked him his name and he gave me his card. He works for the UN DP in Dushanbe which is the United Nations Development Project and his English was better than perfect. I had to leave him because a woman on the plane insisted that she and her husband taking me to Bethany's (the Dushanbe ELF) house so I wouldn't have to get a taxi. Sadly, I had to leave. When I got to Bethany's house I had a ton of bags on me and I put them down and Bethany said "Oh, what's this on your back?" It turns out that one of the "Checked Through Security" stickers had come off one of my bags and attached itself to my back. There was NO WAY anyone wouldn't have noticed it. I thought "Smooth Sharon. Real smooth."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

First Test at the University

Right now my 5th year university students are taking a test. It's interesting because very time I give a test for the first time students are constantly talking and sharing information about the text. They think I don't understand what they're saying but I understand a lot more Russian than I can say. I gave the students all the vocabulary to study the night before and explained the format of the test so they knew EXACTLY what to for the test. When I gave them the test I told them to write their name first. Their questions were "Should we write our surname?" and I said yes because it will go to the director. Then they asked if they should write their group number. Yes, okay, write your group number too. Then the questions were "Miss Sharon do you want a one word answer?" I tell them to read the directions that say "Write the meaning of the word." Student says, "Yes, but how many words?" I patiently say "As many words as it takes to get the meaning across." Then a student asks "Miss Sharon do you want a synonym of word?" I explain again "The directions say to write the meaning of the word. The meaning is the definition."

Before I gave them the test I had them separate their desks. This is the first test they've taken with me so they're not familiar with my style and they don't know that I've been called "Strong like man" for my disciplinary style. These girls haven't seen that side of me yet and this is the first test they've taken with me and will be the first grade they get from me. It really doesn't matter what grade "I" give them. My tests are only for me to test their knowledge but they take a BIG test at the end of the semester that they must pass. If they don't pass then they can pay their way to a "pass" grade. I heard of a Tajik girl who hasn't graduated from the university, but paid for her degree so she could go to the U.S. to study in a few weeks. That's actually normal here. That is how I get 5th year students (this is a 5 year university) who don't understand when I ask them they're name or how they're weekend was. These students have their good friends translate my questions to them, then they answer in Russian, and they're good friend tells me what the girl said. I suppose this is good practice in translation for the good friends.

I've shocked the shit out of these girls with everything being in English!! To them this isn't how it's supposed to be, but they'll learn and be just fine in the end! :-)

****The ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not in any way connected to the views of the United States Department of State nor the English Language Fellow Program. *****

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Always a Patriot, Never an Ex-Patriot

I've never liked that word "ex-pat." It means a person who has left her country to reside in another country either temporarily or permanently. I don't like it because of the "ex" factor and it sounds too much like a person who doesn't love her country anymore. It's used widely in foreign countries. When a bunch of British and American and other westerners get together it's usually said that the "ex-pats" are getting together. When that is said then we know that there will be no locals at the gathering. Other times we say "Hey, I saw another foreigner here today." Foreigner isn't the greatest word either, but that's really what we are here. I don't like being called an ex-pat...that's the bottom line. What can I do about it? Nothing really except blog about it!

I was sitting in a restaurant today with a good friend of mine, Pam. She's from the Isle of Mann (one of the British Isles). She isn't an ELF but is working for Volunteer Services Organization. She's and I meet a lot for tea or dinner and a chat. Tonight we went a to restaurant that's part of a large hotel. There were about 30 people in the restaurant and 28 of them were men. I have NEVER seen a group of women out having dinner together just because they're friends and want to have dinner together. That doesn't happen here. I've also NEVER see a man with his wife and family together. You would NEVER EVER see KIDS in a restaurant either. A restaurant is for wealthy adults, not matter how cheap the restaurant is. I haven't even see a man taking his wife out for a nice dinner together. If a man goes to dinner it's with his posse of other men. And men don't eat alone. In fact, men here don't do anything alone. If you see one man you see his entire entourage of men. This leads me to my point. Pam and I met for dinner tonight and we always have such great conversations. We were just chatting away and ordering our food (I've got this Russian almost figured out!) and we were there for nearly 2 hours. Near the end we looked up and noticed we were the ONLY 2 women in the restaurant. Oh wait! I take that back! There WAS another woman there but she was wearing a mini skirt (major fo paux here) so it seems she was this man's mistress...and again there were SEVERAL men with her so she was DEFINITELY mistress, or something else.

Pam and I realized our situation and were so thankful to be western women who could sit comfortably in a restaurant in such a male dominated society. We ordered for ourselves, had good conversation and enjoyed each other's company, and paid for ourselves. I've always loved being an American and the privileges that come with being an American but the feeling of freedom and confidence I had at that restaurant was overwhelming.

I may be gone from the soil of the United States but that doesn't mean that I don't love it. I'd rather be called a foreigner (or international) than an ex-patriot.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

When You Do Nothing Nothing Happens

In the previous post I noticed I was trying to explain how the Tajiks could actually make some money here. Tajikistan is such a small place but everywhere you go there's a different feel. When I was in Gharm the people were VERY traditional and the women ALL wore the Tajik national dress and head scarves and the older men wore long robes and had long white beards and wore little square hats. In Dushanbe (the capital) a lot of women wore the korta (national dress) but a lot of them didn't cover their hair. No women wore jeans and very few wore pants. In the U.S. women wear tight clothes and men wear baggy clothes but in Dushanbe the women wear baggy clothes and the men's pants and shirt are painted on. No complaints here! :-) In Khujand (where I am now) women wear tight jeans with knee high boots and only the old women wear the national dress and I've only seen a handful of women wearing a heard scarf. The fashion is different in these places and the attitude is different among the 3 places, but one thing that's the same is that there are groups of idle men just standing around doing nothing. In the U.S. if I walked past a group of boys who were about 20 years old just standing around I would wonder what they were up to. Here it's normal. The unemployment rate is ridiculously high and the guys just don't have jobs. Men just wander around...but it's NEVER just one or two of them, it's always AT LEAST 7. They don't know what to do with themselves. There isn't any industry here and there isn't anything that is really Tajik that they can export. Most of the goods are imported from Russia, China, or Canada. A lot of men leave Tajikistan (about 1 million this year) to work in Russia and send money back to Tajikistan to their families. That's dangerous because the economic crisis is affecting the whole world and their not so welcome in Russia. When the money their dries up then Tajikistan is in trouble.

This leads me to my point. I was so happy when I got my haircut yesterday and I saw that the women had things sorted out and they knew their trade. The lady who cut my hair had a rough technique but the end product was exactly what I wanted and that's all that matters. In this salon there were modern hair dryers, chairs that cranked up and down, gowns to go over people's clothes, a hairstyle magazine (one), and samples of colors for people to look at for hair coloring. I was impressed. Tajikistan is NOT modern so that's why I'm making a fuss over how nice this salon was. There were 5 hairstylists and about 15 customers in there at one time. If the Tajiks would put more women to work then Tajikistan could do alright. The men obviously aren't able to provide enough support for the families. Many men are taxi drivers but there's a gas shortage because Uzbekistan (where the benzyne comes from) is angry at Tajikistan for not giving them water for their electricity (hydro electricity) so even being a taxi driver isn't going to provide for stable work at this point. But it seems that women are always happy to get a hair cut or even just a style, and get their eyebrows plucked, too. The eyebrows are a HUGE deal here. Apparently before a woman is married she will grow a uni-brow. They're quite impressive I'll tell ya. It's a sign of beauty to have a uni-brow. Women will have hena painted in between their brows if they can't grow one naturally. I couldn't even IMAGINE trying to grow a uni-brow. I've never plucked my eyebrows in my life and they just look like normal brows. Then, in most part of Tajikistan it's customary for a woman to pluck her brows after she's married. Instead of looking for a wedding ring, a man will look at a woman's eyebrows to see if she's available. As you can see, there would be a huge business in eyebrows and there could be a big business in overall beauty. The women at the salon took the time to learn a trade and apply it and I give them mad props for helping to support a country that needs women to help hold this place together.

Tajik Hair Cut

Well done Tajikistan!!!! I KNEW you could pull it off! It's only a haircut but the hair is some people's prize and they don't want it screwed up because people have to look at it!
I have been sizing up the Tajiks haircuts for about 6 weeks now and I decided to take the plunge since their haircuts looked really cute. The girls in Khujand are much more cutting edge and have cuter styles in EVERYTHING than in Dushanbe and other parts of Tajikistan. There's a lot of Russian influence here and you can see it in fashion and hair styles. I did it! I took my Russian phrasebook and went to the hairdressers and explained (in Russian) that I wanted it layered and NOT TOO SHORT!! The lady understood and did her thing. There was certainly no ecomonic crisis in that hairdressing place. Women were getting their eyebrows plucked (with dental floss! ouch!!) and getting hair cuts and their hair styled. It was a happening place and it was for women only. Women working there and women clients. Tajikistan NEEDS its women to be working and there should be MORE places like that to cater to female clients. They could even do make-up and nails if they wanted to. It seems that even in the U.S. during tough times the salons are still busy with people wanting to do something to make themselves feel good, whether it's a manicure, pedicure, or a haircut. I only paid 20 Somoni for a cut and style which is $4.57. I was so ready to pay 100 Somoni when I walked in because the place looked like a REAL salon, but when she said 20 Somoni I wanted to beg her to let me pay her more, but the Tajiks absolutely will not accept more money (except taxi drivers). With the Tajiks I've met, if they tell you a price, that's the price they want whether you're a Tajik or not. I like that about them. It's a good thing the people are so nice otherwise I would have been out of here. I like the Tajiks...they're good people.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I'm Very Busy and Important!!!

I'm very busy and important!! I like that phrase. It completely sums up my life in Tajikistan. I've been here for three and a half months now the longer I'm here the busier I am. Every day presents new challenges and surprises. When I do have down time though I like to watch lighthearted movies where I don't have to think too much so psychological thrillers are out of the question. It takes too much brainpower to live and work here and I don't want to think/work when I'm relaxing either. This leads me to the point. For so many years I thought I was too busy for a relationship. I WAS busy but it was because I was trying to get a particular point where I could feel comfortable in my career and happy with what I was doing. I'm so happy with my work right now and I thought once I reached this point that a relationship would be easy. But now that I'm happy with my work I've found that a relationship right now would be a total disaster for me. I'm very busy and important here!! I've never known busy-ness like this before. I'm literally a celeb except people don't want autographs, they want my TIME and attention and every time I make an appearance somewhere there's a photo shoot afterwards where EVERYONE has to be in the picture. It's pretty cool and I like it. I actually like it so much that I realized that I could never have time to be in a relationship in Tajikistan. I gave my number to ONE Tajik guy in the past 3 1/2 months and he texted me every day asking "Where are you? What are you doing?" Okay that was ANNOYING!!! Text me and invite me somewhere...not to find out where I am. Tajik men can't understand that I'm very busy and important!!! I don't even have time to do my laundry or clean my apartment! The difference is that women in Tajikistan AREN'T busy making a difference in Tajikistan and AREN'T important So unless a nice western man comes along and overlooks the GORGEOUS Tajik women, it looks like I'll be single for a little while longer.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Take the Bad with the Good

Well, I've been kind of quiet in my posts because as of late life has been so sucky here that I just don't want to talk about it. I keep telling myself that it's only been 2 weeks and things need time to sort themselves out, and they are sorting themselves out now, but I just had to give it time.

My frustrations came from just simply living in Tajikistan. Khujand has been soooooo utterly difficult for me to adjust to. I did well in Gharm and Dushanbe but Khujand has really kicked me ass. It stems from not having a central contact here, not being able to communicate with my landlady, not trusting my assistant who lied to me and tries to trick me into telling her things (so I fired her and got a new one), not having running water most mornings and sometimes not all day, dim electricity, not being able to go out after dark (basically after 5 p.m.) because there are so few street lights and the men notice me whether it's light or dark out, and my internet doesn't work so well here like in Dushanbe so sometimes I can't access it and I must do all my work before 5 p.m. because after that then the internet is $.17 a minute!!! I must work quickly during the day and after 5 p.m. be in lockdown in my apartment with no internet. Also, it's irritating how people forget that I don't speak the language and can't communicate. My landlady finally brought a translator with her to my apartment one day to tell me some things about the hot water heater. I asked the translator where my landlady works and the translator said "What, she didn't tell you?" I was so mentally exhausted from living like a Tajik that I simply said "And just how is she supposed to do that?" Then the translator realized how dumb her question was and helped me out. Someone from the Embassy who's supposed to be my contact is also insensitive like that. Sometimes I can't contact people who speak Russian or Tajik so I call her and she asks me why I didn't call my contacts in Khujand. I don't even answer her when she says things like that and just tell her what I need. Also when my internet was down I called someone and she gave me a number to call to check on it and said the people speak English. Okay, fair enough. I called it and the number doesn't exist. I have Indigo Tajikistan for my internet but she gave me the number for Indigo Somonkom, nevertheless, the number doesn't exist. I called her back and told her that the number didn't exist and I had Indigo Tajikistan (which is based in Dushanbe, not in Khujand). She told me to go find someone with an Indigo Tajikistan phone. That would be like me walking out in the street in the U.S. and randomly asking people if they have a language that they don't understand. Come...the....fuck....on. That's been my default phrase that I say in my head (not to them) when people say things and don't think about what they're saying. And on top of that everyone told me Khujand has the freshest mountain air but I haven't seen the mountains for a week because they're hidden behind the smoke from the garbage and leaf burning. I had a weeks worth of garbage in my kitchen because I didn't know where to dump it. My landlady came and took me down to the main street and put it on a pile of leaves to be burned. What am I supposed to do when there are no leaves to burn? Where do I put it then?

Okay, so on the flipside. I resolved my issues with the internet. The person from the embassy took 3 minutes of her time and found out the satellite was down. I told the director of my department about the problems I was having with my assistant being untrustworthy and I was getting bad vibes from her so she gave me a new assistant. The old assistant worked for the Grammar man who shouted at me and said I should speak with a British accent, but my new assistant works in my same department and I like her a lot. I get good vibes from her.

I'm only teaching one group of students at the university and they are absolutely wonderful! They work so well together and work well with me. They are eager to learn and literally hang on every word I say. They're all girls, too, and we all get along so well. My classes are going well with them and I even added an additional conversation class with them. Today they offered to meet me once a week and go on an excursion in Khujand and show me the museums so they can explain things (it's in Russian) and the ballet and the fortress and other sites of interest. I normally wouldn't do that but they are really great girls and I look forward to seeing them every day.

I've begun teacher training and that's going really well and I look forward to those classes, too. I like to talk about language with them and show them new techniques and provide information that seems so logical to me, but to them, they've never heard of things that I talk about and they're just in awe and think everything I say is so wonderful. Ha It's just that they're administration is stuck in 1967 and they have no access to the internet to find out that there is a modern world out there!!! So I've brought it to them and it's working out great!

I also met a British woman and a German woman here to hang out with. It was really really really lonely until I met them because I couldn't go out after dark and I couldn't go to cafes and sit and drink coffee and work because the men won't leave me alone...and I get followed a lot. I met them so now I can go out and feel safer AND they are really great ladies. They're both in their late 50's, early 60's and have good attitudes and we've been supportive of each other. We have Friday dinners every week to vent off the steam from the week and Sunday breakfasts and walks around Khujand. We see the Tajiks all week and the Tajiks have such a different way of communicating and it's to be with people who are western, even if they're not American.

I've got things much more under least for today, but I'm beginning to see more good days than bad.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Manual Labor

I'm settled (sort of) in to Khujand. I feel like I've lived in 3 different countries but I've only been in one, Tajikistan! Gharm, Dushanbe, and Khujand are all so different. I really feel like I'm living in a Russian territory in Khujand. It's a cool city though and I like the sophisticated, cultural vibe I get from it. I almost feel like the Tajiks are out of place here it's almost like their visitors in a Russian province...but that's just my opinion.

I like my apartment. It's small but will be easy to heat in the winter. It's really no wonder that the Tajiks can't get ahead. Everything here is done manually and EVERYTHING takes so long to do. I wanted to make chili which I've never really done before but instead of going to the store the just buying kidney beans already cooked in the juice and a can of stewed tomatoes I had to do everything manuall. I went to the big outdoor market and bought kidney beans, beautiful tomatoes, garlic and lots of other spices and stuff to put in there. Then I had to go to the real supermarket and buy meat. The shopping process just to buy stuff for chili took approximately 1 1/2 hours. Then of course I had to MAKE it. I soaked the kidney beans for a few hours and then cooked them. Chopped up the tomatoes and onions and stewed them. Then I chopped up the garlic and green onions and put everything together. The process of making the chili was about 2 hours. It's okay's lasted me for several meals over several days and it turned out REALLY good. Then I bought some grapes and I have to peal them (haha) because I didn't have any distilled water to wash them with and there are seeds inside. So I peeled the grapes and took out the seeds and ate them.

The process of making toast makes me laugh. I can put it in the oven, but it will take 30 minutes for toast. Oatmeal on the stove takes 20 minutes (no instant). Nothing is instant here...nothing. And I have no dishwasher so whatever dishes I dirty I have to wash them myself (I don't mind, I'm used to it).

Then that's not the process of getting water that's drinkable. My landlady bought me a 5 liter thermos for heating water. That's great and it gets it boiling but ever after it's boiled there's a nasty film on the top of the water and there's dirt in the cannister (it's mountain water). I have a small coffee maker with a filter-ish kind of thing so pump the water out of the thermos and into a pot, let it cool, and then pour the water through the filter and into empty bottles. I can use that water to wash vegetables and stuff. It's drinkable but doesn't taste good. Luckily there's easy access to fresh water at the supermarket just down the street. All of that is just for food. Then there's the process of washing clothes! Oh my goodness! I have to wash them by hand. I put them in a bucket in my bathtub with scrubbing powder and manually scrub my clothes clean. The wringing part of it will give me arms of steel! haha I consider washing clothes my workout! Then I have to find a place to hang my clothes. There a small line outside, but the other day I put some clothes out and it rained on them, and now it's snowing. So much for the clothes line. I brought my own clothes line and have to figure up some way to hang the stuff up. Whew! All of this on top of having a job! It's no wonder Tajik women don't work!

Apparently the electricity was out in all of Dushanbe this morning. I'm just waiting for that to happen here. I'm supposed to have electricity a lot of the time, but when I moved in there was an endless supply of candles and lighters in the apartment and lots of bottles of distilled water. I have a feeling it will be a loooooong, cold, dark winter!

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Hello all my followers (all 4 of you!) :-) I tried to post pictures from the speech competition I organized in Gharm, but the formatting on was being uncooperative and looked dumb so I posted pics and text on my travel blog just this once because there's a lot of pics. Please go to for the latest update.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I Feel Like I'm Right Where I'm Supposed To Be

This week I'm helping to recruit students for a particular program funded by the U.S. State Department. It's a program to help underprivileged and disadvantaged high school aged kids learn English for free. In Tajikistan, it's particularly for kids who are orphans, whose father died in the civil war, whose father went to Russia to work and doesn't send money, or who have two parents but they have low paying jobs and many children and can't afford additional English classes. The place that is running this particular program is already a university and runs this U.S. funded program an additional program. The kids (ages 14-16) were given extremely difficult texts to read such as "Do Muslims Really Want Democracy" and "How the Neutron Bomb Will Save the World" and had to be prepared to come in and discuss and argue about during the interview process. The project coordinator assigned these texts and expects the students to be able to come in and speak about them in ENGLISH which is absolutely absurd! I don't even think "I" could carry on a discussion about the neutron bomb. I don't know a freaking thing about the neutron bomb and it's absolutely assanine to expect 14 year olds to come in and debate and ARGUE this topic in ENGLISH! That's totally NOT what the program is about. It's assumed that kids who come from low income families can't afford English lessons and this program is for students who know basic English and can carry on a BASIC conversation and talk about what they do in their free time or their best friend...not how the neutron bomb is a humane and civilized way to kill people. Come on! The project coordinator didn't want to consider the students who couldn't debate and argue about these texts. I argued with her and told that this program is EXACTLY for these kids who don't have high English skills and I'm going to make sure that they get into this program. The coordinator said they are not a language program and I told her that's EXACTLY what the U.S. gives them money be an English language learning program! I told her that if they don't change their program then they will lose their funding and it will go to an NGO that will use it the way it's supposed to be used.

The program is extremely competitive and over 300 students applied but we can only accept 24 at each location. PRIORITY is given to the disadvantaged kids not to the ones with the BEST debate and English skills. I'm fighting for the poor little orphan boy whose mother and father both died and he is living with his uncle and grandmother. His suit was 3 sizes too big and he couldn't talk about the text he read AT ALL! When I asked him what he did in his free time and to tell me about his friends he loosened up. He couldn't communicate all that well, but he was trying and the fact that he filled out the application, wrote an essay, and showed up to the interview says that he wants to be in the program. Then there was another kid I interviewed who was from Afghanistan. His family has been living in Tajikistan for one year. He said his father was a doctor in Afghanistan and was working for foreigners. The Taliban said that an Afghan caught working with foreigners would be killed, so his family fled to Tajikistan. His father had to take a lesser paying job in Tajikistan and they can't afford English lessons. It's kids like these who need to be given priority over kids whose fathers are generals in the military or work in international organizations. I have the power to remind them that this program is for the disadvantaged kids and to make sure that the U.S. money is going to run these programs the way they should be run. It's an advantage for these kids to be disadvantaged! The problem is that many coordinators forget the goals of the program and accept kids with the best English skills. It's not for the ones who are the's for the NEEDIEST! Learning English is one of their only chances at having a better life here; it will open so many different doors for them. I'm just glad that I have the opportunity to give these kids a chance that they otherwise wouldn't have had.

**** The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in this blog are solely that of the author and not of the United States Department of State nor the English Language Fellow Program.****

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Road to Garm

Sorry there are some technical difficulties; the video didn't upload. I'll try to add it later. Only the first 2 sentences are about the video so continue reading even without it! :-)

This is a video of the road to Garm when I first left from Dushanbe on September 1. I was on this road for about 4 hours. It wasn't all like this because there are some places where the Chinese are paving the roads and it's nice, smooth asphalt. However, MOST of the way is narrow, windy, steep, and scary. Luckily I was in an embassy vehicle and it's an SUV and the driver was driving carefully. When I just returned to Dushanbe a few days ago I DIDN'T have an embassy vehicle and was in a small hatchback car with a colleague and some random woman also going to Dushanbe. On the way back to Dushanbe we got pulled over at a security checkpoint to check documents. They checked mine of course and all I had was a copy of my passport and my visa that expired that day. The security officers wanted to know why my documents were in Tajik or in Russian. Ummmm because passports aren't translated into other langauges dummy! I'm lucky they didn't ask for a bribe and said that they trusted that we were going to Dushanbe to resolve this issue...and we were.

As you can see it's difficult enough just to get to Dushanbe so I won't be leaving without my passport AND my proper documents showing that I'm here legally. The director of my program wanted me to return to Garm yesterday but I refused. I don't want to be in Tajikistan, where corruption is rampid, without my proper documents.

On another note, Tajik man came with me to Dushanbe because he had business to do here and had a wedding to attend. A few weeks ago he told me "You will go to my relatives' wedding with me in Dushanbe and we will stay in my flat." Ummmm We will? I didn't say anything about NOT going with him until we were in the car on the way to Dushanbe. I told him I wouldn't be going to the wedding because I had plans with my friend. He just ignored me. When I arrived to Dushanbe, Bethany, my ELF colleague, met me down the street from her apartment (she had been out shopping). The Tajik man insisted on helping take my luggage to her place. When we arrived at Bethany's we were both trying to get rid of this man and didn't invite him in. He dropped off my stuff and we were like "Okay, bye, thanks for bringing my stuff. We'll see you later." He just stood in the doorway. Then he said "I'll call you and tell you what restaurant the wedding will be in. Maybe it will start at 4 p.m." I said, "I don't think we're gonna go. We have plans with some other people." The man wasn't paying attention and said insisted he would call. So he left. About 40 minutes later he called and said the wedding was at 2 p.m. and they were at the restaurant. He was calling to give me directions. I told him we couldn't go because we were on our way out to meet some people, which was true. He wasn't happy and hung up. Then about 5 hours later he called me and was SHOUTING at me on the phone and said, "I thought about you and your girlfriend while I was at the wedding and wondered WHY? WHY? isn't Miss Sharon here? The music was LOUD, you see, and there was dancing, you see? Why you didn't come to the wedding?" I told him I had had plans. What more could I say. He was so obnoxious and had obviously had a few too many drinks at the wedding. He wasn't happy with me but accepted my answer.

I didn't go to the wedding with him because it's not appropriate for a man to ask a woman to wedding who isn't his wife or his daughter or a girlfriend. I am NONE of those to this man. In Garm and the villages it would be different because the men and women are separated and never see each other anyway so I would be with all women but in Dushanbe the weddings are in a restaurant and you sit with whomever you go with. I talked to so many women and they advised me it wasn't appropriate for me to go and I listened. He keeps calling me wanting me to visit his relatives' house in Dushanbe to see how the Tajiks live in Dushanbe and I just told him that I would be in Tajikistan for a long time and would get to see a wedding and how people live some other time. I'm sure his intentions aren't good so I just avoid him. He will go back to Garm today but I'm staying so I'm glad that I won't have to ride back in a car with him and listen to him. I don't feel like he would do anything to put me into danger, but I feel like he would be an ass and try to make me feel bad about not going to the wedding.

So that is the update for now. I'm waiting for this video to upload...hopefully it will work.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bonding moment

Yesterday the students brought food so that we could celebrate Eid as a class together. It turns out that the time of fasting is not over for everyone though. The Muslims fast for one month, then have Eid, which is supposedly a three day holiday where they eat to their content. However, there are some Muslims who fast for one month, feast on the first day of Eid, and then fast again for 6 days. I found out from one of my students that he is fasting again for 6 days because he cheated during Ramadan and didn't fast for 10 days. Only 4 of the 15 students could join me and the other teacher for a feast because they were all fasting again. It was difficult enough looking at them in class all tired and hungry for the first 20 days I was here. Apparently they weren't so hungry after all! LOL That's alright, they've always been great students, whether they've eaten recently or not!

After the feast where only me, their teacher, and a few students ate there was a TON of food left over. All the students had brought food and they brought enough for 20 people to eat. Well, when only 6 people ate there was so much left. The students went home and left all the food. The teacher kept insisting that I eat some of the food right then and there and then take the rest home. I told him my little refrigerator in the hotel was completely full from Eid on Monday and I didn't have room. Then he kept insisting that I choose what I wanted to take. I took a few things here and there and then he kept insisting that I take the bread. I DON'T WANT ANYMORE BREAD! I can't eat it all and I already gave a bag full of bread to the lady at the hotel because I can only eat it so fast and eat so much. It's literally going to waste giving it to me. I did take home my favorite, mantoo, which looks like a dumpling stuffed with beef and onions. It's delectable! I have to learn how to make's the best!

By the time I left the school it was almost time for cooker lady, who's name is Zebo niso, to bring me dinner. I hadn't eaten for several hours since lunch and Z always brings me soup or something light for dinner. Since it was almost time for dinner, me and the teacher, Sharbot, went to Z's house to ask her to heat up the mantoo for me for dinner. When I was at Z's house she invited me to stay and have dinner with her and her family since it was close to the time anyway. Sharbot, who is a VERY Tajik man (I'll explain that comment some other time), had to leave but asked me who would be the translator. I told him I didn't need one. Soimehow Z and I always manage to communicate somehow, somehow. In fact, I communicate better with her in Tajik than I do with the director of this program and the English teachers in English.

I stayed Z and she invited me into her home for dinner. The homes of the poor in Tajikistan that I've seen are not mud with a thatch roof, not in the town of Garm anyway. The homes I've seen have been smooth concrete and are decorated inside with rugs hanging on the wall and pillows on the floor to lean on while they eat. Z's house is right next to the bozor (bazar) which is the main marketplace. She has a small dirt yard and I believe shares the area with some other families. Her apartment only has 3 rooms. Her living room and eating area is very small and there is another room where Z and her 2 children sleep together. She also has a kitchen for cooking. I haven't looked in there yet because I don't think I want to see where she cooks my food. It's always good, hot, and fresh. That's all I need to know.

I sat with Z and somehow, with my sketchy Tajik, I pieced together that she has 3 children. A daughter who is 21, another daughter who was at dinner with us who is 18, and a son who is 12. He sometimes comes with Z to the hotel to deliver my dinner. I also found out that she is 52 and she definitely looks like she's had a hard life. Her husband is a shithead (my words) who divorced her and left the country. He left her to support herself and her 3 children. Men divorcing their wives and leaving is as common as the sun shining here (and that's all the time). I asked her if she had satellite TV and she said no because she doesn't have enough money. She has to support two children who are still at home and herself. Her 21 year daugther MIGHT be married (I wasn't sure about that) and living with her husband but she doesn't live in the house with Z.

After dinner Z got up and started to do a Tajik dance. She wanted me to get up and dance with her so I did. I was surprised at how well she danced! We were laughing and she was so happy that I danced with her that she gave me a hug that nearly took the breath out of me. I'm 5'8" and she is about 5'2" and I outweigh her by a good 50 pounds, but she is so strong. When she hugged me it was a genuine, heartfelt, squeeze the breath out a person, hug.

So far the dinner with Zebo niso and her family has been the best time I've had in Tajikistan.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

This is how much food was at every house I visited on Monday. The Muslims are breaking the month long fast and celebrate with lots of sweets and meat salads on this day. All the food was excellent!

This is the cornfield of the student on the far right. These are all of my female students from one group. I visited every one of their houses and they were so excited to have their teacher in their home for the holiday. Each one made a special dish for me that is specifically Tajik. I was able to meet their mothers and talk with them through the students. I thanked their mothers for allowing them to study English in the Micro Access Scholarship program. Their mothers are very proud of their daughters and, even though I don't speak Tajik, their mothers seemed very cool and open minded and wanting their daughters to have a better future.

All of my students baked a cake and when I went to each of their houses they cut the cake for me. I ate so many sweets on Monday I thought I would go into diabetic shock! I ate other foods, too, such as galoobsee (stuffed peppers with meat inside), montoo (steamed dumplings with meat), and of course lots of bread.

This is the food that the families sent home with me. I can't imagine being able to eat ALL of it. The chickens will be well fed this Eid! The lady who cleans my hotel room saw all the bread in a bag and told me to eat it. I would literally have to eat bread morning, noon, and night, and for snacks for about 2 weeks to eat all of this food. I told the woman that I didn't want to get fat. She said that I wouldn't get fat. hmmmmm yeaaaaah okay. Anyway so I took some bread out and gave her the rest of it. She needs it a lot more than I do.

These are the wonderful Tajik women that I spent a lot of time with at the director's house. This was the fifth house I visited and I was so stuffed but I had to eat or they would be offended. Firdavs, the director, was the translator and these women wanted to know why I wasn't married. I told them that American women are interested more in a career first and then a family after that. These women were so impressed and happy that American women think about their future. They said that the future for a Tajik women in the Rasht Valley where they live is only to take care of the family and their husband. They said that the men beat them and demand that they bring them food and it was particularly difficult during Ramadan when their husbands were hungry and angry all the time. They were so thankful that I sat with them and I'll be returning soon so they can teach me how to cook Kolcha and other foods. I'm an American woman who is highly educated but I can't cook! Nevertheless I think a great exchange will happen between us. They will teach me how to cook and I'll teach them how to teach their children to think about the future of Tajikistan.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Yesterday I helped four students from the Micro Access Scholarship program fill out applications for the FLEX program. FLEX stands for Future Leaders Exchange and it gives underprivileged high school kids a chance to compete to study in a high school in the U.S. for one year. There were 30 students who tried out at a local school here in Garm. I went there and there was an American who was testing the students and he filled me in on the process. The students take a short English test, like 16 questions, and then if they do well then they make it to the second round. I'm proud to say that out of the 20 students in the Micro Access Scholarship program that I'm working with who are eligible to take the test (they must be 16 years old or younger) they all showed up...even three girls. That was huge! Any students who are between 14-16 years old can compete, but their English skills must be up to snuff. So out of the students who took the test, 9 made it to the second round of the competition which was an essay. Ray, the representative from FLEX passed four students to round 3. Two were students who graduated from the Micro Access program this year and the other two are current students. The two current students in the English Access program are STRONG and I'm so excited that they might have a chance to go to the U.S. They third round is filling out an application and then submitting it to American Councils. Then it goes to to Washington, D.C. to be reviewed. They won't know until April if they've been chosen or not. That's harsh! Forty-five students from all over Tajikistan are chosen and they try to make it gender equivalent and take students from all over the country. It's an great exchange program and the students will come back with more open minds and different views of the world and also ideas on how to make Tajikistan better. That's the idea anyway.

Let me explain the English Access Micro Scholarship Program here. It's a program to help under privileged children in remote areas of Tajikistan to learn English. They must compete to be in the program. They must register, write an essay in Tajik, and if their essay in Tajik is strong enough, then they are interviewed. The students come from their villages into the town of Garm three days a week after regular public school. They are in public school in the morning and come to the center to learn English in the afternoons. It's completely voluntary. This program is the reason why four students in the Rasht district (Garm and the surrounding villages) are competing to go study in the U.S. It's brilliant!

I learned a lot about the students, too, while helping them fill out the application. It's a 12 page application and they don't understand all the information. I spent 6 hours with them yesterday and will spend more time with them after Eid filling it out. I learned that one (my favorite...I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, but he is), whose English name is Fox Mulder, doesn't have a father in his house. His father left Tajikistan and went to Belarus for work twelve years ago and never returned. I wanted to ask if his father sends his family money, but it wasn't the time yesterday. I will certainly find out though. Apparently that's a common thing. Another student said his 19 year old brother went to Russia to work because he can make more money there. Men going to work in Russia is a help and a hindrance here. It's a help because the men Western Union the money here for the families. It's a hindrance because, more often then not, the men go to Russia and stop sending money after awhile and stop calling. They find a new wife there and have a family and leave their families here to fend for themselves. It's a really harsh life here. It leaves a lot of single mothers to care for families or the father's brother who is still in Tajikistan is responsible for taking care of the family. There are so many men leaving and it means that there's more women in the country than men. That means that if men have the funds available to support more than one wife in Tajikistan he can take more...many more. It usually turns out that he will take a mistress (usually several) and the men here like to brag about their mistresses. Women aren't allowed to get divorced here so if her husband has mistresses or if he's beating her, there's no way out for her. I asked my students why they thought that the English Access program is really pushing to have more girls in the program. One male student said "Because when they divorce their husband and live in America then they can make it on their own." That's not the answer I was looking for but I couldn't have imagined a better answer from a young Tajik man.

Monday, September 14, 2009

This is a Chinese road block which is very common in the mountains here. The Chinese are building roads through Tajikistan and I've heard various reasons as to why the Chinese are building the roads. I've heard that they want to open a route to Europe and build roads all the way to Australia (ha...good luck with that one!). I've also heard that they are building these roads from Dushanbe to Garm to Gorno Badakhshan because they are hotspots for the start of a revolution and the government has no way to get tanks to these areas if it's needed. The Tajiks can't afford to build the roads themselves so they took a loan from the Chinese government on the condition that they must use a Chinese company AND repay the loan. The Tajiks are getting a road for the movement of goods and tanks and the Chinese are getting their money twice. It seems to be working for everyone involved.

This is what we do when there is a Chinese op! Look at that view! It looks like it's flat behind me but there is actually a SHEER cliff that drops all the way down to the river. If I took a step back it would be all over.

This is how the Tajiks wait while the Chinese build the road.

This is how the Chinese wait...ummm wait? Shouldn't they be working? Is that why I had to wait 2 hours?

This is a Tajik road block which takes a lot less time to clear.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rasht Valley and Garm, Tajikistan

This is a photo of the Rasht Valley that surrounds Garm. I can't believe how blue the sky was and how clean and cool the air felt. It was definitely a good day or hiking and seeing the place that I'll be calling home for the next few months.

Many families have cows and sheep. These cows are owned by a village in the valley and families take turns herding the cattle into the mountains in the morning and bringing them back to the village in the evening. If a family doesn't want to take its turn to herd the cattle then they must pay another family to do it for them.

This was my guide for my first hike. He is the assistant manager at Mercy Corps and also a sometimes teacher in the program I'm consulting for.

This is a man who was cutting grass so it could be dried and made into hay for the cows and donkeys.

I was told by my guide that taking photos of people is a sign of friendship. This family was eager to have their picture taken. I will eventually print it out and take it to them.

This is a photo of girdacha which is a type of national bread. Look at how huge it is and this is only a piece of bread. If I ate all this bread myself I would be a cow! I bet it would make good pizza though! yum!
This is my back yard at the hotel. People just wander around back there and this happens to be a man going to the hose to get some water for tea. The beard on this man and his flowing robe is a common sight here in Garm.
This is a cot and it's the place for eating. The food is placed in the center and then everyone sits around. I had dinner here at Janice's house. She is another American living in Garm and she's the director of Mercy Corps, the American organization that is helping Tajiks build greenhouses for food sustainability and giving workshops on health and midwifing (if that's a word).

This is something that my cooker lady made for me. It's a national dish called plov. It's something like fried rice and is quite oily. It usually comes with some type of meat, too.

On the road to Garm there were herds of cows in the street. I've never seen anything like it before but it's common in Tajikistan. So the dangers on the road to Garm are rock slides, mud slides, and cows.

Road to Garm, Tajikistan from Dushanbe

This is the road on the way to Garm. Some of it is being paved by the Chinese so it's a nice asphalt road but the Chinese are everywhere paving the road. This is part of the road that was the most treacherous. It is narrow and there is no guard rail. The problem with this part of the road is that there is the danger of rock slides and mud slides. Luckily I was in an SUV but I felt really sorry for the people in small sedans.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

My students today told me that I've been in Tajikistan for 10 days now. When they told me that I said "I HAVE?" It sounds like such a long time but it feels like I've been here for only like 3 days. I landed in Dushanbe in the middle of the night and was carted off to an apartment to stay for 4 days. That was a very busy 4 days with meetings at the embassy, a few parties in there, too, and some running around trying to get myself ready to leave for Garm. I was all hyped up about Garm because of the reactions I was getting from people. I've been in Garm for 5 days but it's strange that it doesn't feel like that long and, I'll say it's definitely a scary looking place on the surface, but I don't feel unsafe. If I didn't have support from the embassy or from an organization then I certainly wouldn't be here on my own.

The students I'm working with make it worth it for me to come to Garm. One group that I worked with today are so enthusiastic and eager to learn anything and everything. There aren't any motivational problems there at all. The students in this program are very special. They go to regular public school in their village in the morning and then voluntarily come to Garm 3 afternoons a week and spend 3 hours each time just to learn English. They aren't required to come. They applied for this scholarship program, were chosen to participate, and they come to class. Today all the boys were in class but only 1 of the 4 girls came to class. The girls come villages the farthest away and also have to help their mothers with housework, cooking, and caring for younger siblings. That is why they will miss more school than the boys. The one girl who came to class today lives in Garm so it's more convenient for her.

I'm really impressed with these students who started with ZERO English and in just 8 months are able to talk with me and aren't shy. Their writing and reading skills aren't bad either. I just can't believe their level after 8 months with a Tajik teacher. They were motivated from the beginning and whoever chose these students to be in this program did a good job of recruiting them. When I ask them to do an activity where I ask who wants to go first I had to change the way I asked because EVERYONE raises their hand to answer questions. I have to ask questions to particular students and I also put their names in hat and choose names instead of asking who wants to go first for speeches and such. It's GREAT!!!!!!

We went around in class a few days ago and gave everyone English names. One wanted to be called Mulder, like Fox Mulder. I don't know where he heard that but he liked it. Another student wants to be called John Rambo, but we just call him John. It's funny how they start to look like their English names after awhile. I told them that needed a Tajik name so they call me Shadoza, which means queen. They have such a good sense of humor. Two of the students are the best of friends and they have dressed alike every day since I've been with them except today. They wear the same striped shirt, pants, socks with dollar signs, and pointy shoes. Today they were dressed differently and I teased them that they forgot to dress alike today.

We talked a lot about families today and I found out whose fathers were killed in the civil war. One student is an only child and his father was a police man in Garm and he was killed in the war. I can tell he doesn't have a father because of his behavior. He is the sweetest kid, about 14 years old, but things he does shows he doesn't have a father at home. The other day he threw a book across the room to his classmate. I gave it back to him and made him stand up and walk the book over to his classmate. He did it with no complaints. He's a good kid (and smart, too) but just needs a little polishing.

I have a second group of students who started at the same time as the first group and they are radically different. The second group that I have are very quiet and not quite so eager to participate. They are much better at reading and writing than they are at speaking. They are good kids and motivated, but not quite so eager. I think they are still trying to figure me out. There are 4 girls in the class and a few of them are quite good at English and not shy about speaking in front of the class, but their writing needs some work.

The teachers here have really done a good job with these students who started from zero. The teachers have only learned English from books and have had little to no contact with native speakers. One teacher who is my shadow, Mr. Sharbot (Peter), is always talking WAY off in the distant past. He'll tell me 10 years ago he did this and in 1985 he did that. Everything he talks about is 10 years ago or more! Yesterday I found a grammar book that he uses as a reference. I opened it up and it smelled like a musty old library book and the pages were yellowed. It was a grammar book copyright 1965 and published in Moscow. He told me that is his reference book. I was like "I'm gonna hook you up with Betty Azar, 2004 and you can shelf that musty old book." He is a very very good teacher, though, and has a the best Enlish level of any of them that I work with and the students like him because he's old and wise. He's my chaperone when I leave class and my shadow when I'm in class. He is so sweet and there isn't a mean bone in his body. In fact, that's what I've found about most of the Tajiks that I've met so far. I don't feel like there are alterior motives when they want to talk to me. They seem genuinely interested and that's something that I haven't felt in other places I've been to. There is one man that I think has alterior motives. I get creepy vibes from him but luckily I only work with him once a week and other people are around. Anyway back to my shadow. Some days I go the center he's in charge of and he's there at like 10 a.m. just sitting around even though he doesn't have to teach until 1 p.m. It's so cute! I think he's bored, especially during Ramadan when he can't eat or really exercise too much, so he just hangs out at the center. I also found out today that he doesn't have a wife and he has 5 children who are in their 20's. I don't know what happened to his wife; I'm guessing she died but I didn't want to ask. I suppose he's in his early 50's but I'm terrible at guessing ages, especially in developing countries like this. He could look 50 and really be like 35! But seriously though he's definitely an older man.

Now that I've been here for almost a week I'm feeling more comfortable. I have lunch and dinner brought to me every day so I don't have to worry about food. I've met with the director and gave a workshop to teachers already, and taught some classes. I have ideas on how I can improve the place and it's going to be great. Now I just need to get to work! :-)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

No harm in Garm

I left from Dushanbe at 6 a.m. Monday morning to head to Garm. No one could say exactly how much time it would take to get there; the range was anywhere from 4 - 10 hours. That's quite a range! Once I got on the road I understood why it would take some people 10 hours to get there. Most of the way was over bumpy, rocky, sandy, unpaved road and there were lots of twists and turns and in some places it was quite narrow and only wide enough for one car. Luckily I was in an SUV but I saw many small cars trying to traverse these roads; it would have been faster for them to ride a donkey, but much more dangerous of course.

The road to Garm and the scenery through the mountains and valleys was quite beautiful. We were driving past rushing rapids and could see herds of cattle grazing on plateaus. The scenery changed dramatically in a short time as we drove farther into the mountains. The Chinese are building a road for the Tajiks so some parts of the road were really smooth and freshly paved, but that for about 10 minutes of the nearly 4 hours it took me to get to Garm.

I'm staying in the only hotel in town and the views I have the snowy mountains refreshing. Most mornings there are dark clouds covering the mountains all around and it's dropping snow and some rain, too. The surrounding mountains are about 15,000 feet high (or higher).

Garm is a small town of about 50,000 people, but not all those people are in the center of Garm; there are surrounding districts included in this number. It's pretty much town with one main street that's paved and most of the streets that branch out from that are dirt and rocks. There aren't houses like we know in the U.S. but they're not huts either. They are made of rock and wood with tin roofs. Imagine a shed or a barn and that's what the poorer people's houses look like. The director of the program, Firdavs, took us to his house for lunch and his house is not a hut nor a shed. He is fairly wealthy and has a fruit and vegetable garden and many cows.

Firdavs has not let me out of his sight too much since I've arrived. I am either with him, or Mr. Sharbot, another teacher. I am rarely alone in the street, although I could be if I wanted to. Firdavs has brought me fresh pears from his trees and fresh milk from the cows every day. It is Ramadan now so there are no restaurants open at all in this place and the canteen at the hotel is closed also until September 22, when Ramadan ends. Firdavs arranged for a cooker lady (as they say) to bring me lunch and dinner every day. We arranged a menu (it's a surprise what I'll be getting every day) and I pay something ridiculously cheap like $3.00 a day for authentic, traditional meals. Yesterday was my first day of meals and damn were they good! I had peppers stuffed with beef and rice for lunch and a vegetable soup for dinner. Today I will have a traditional dish called plov which is rice and chicken. Now don't get me wrong...I'm only getting a private chef right now because it's Ramadan and I basically don't have any access to food. Thank GOD my JAG dads gave me water and food because I've been snacking on those things often.

I'm glad I had a chance to come to Garm to see this place for myself. There was so much hype about this place and it was all negative. Yes, it is the seat of opposition for the government, but I don't feel unsafe and I have been introduced to enough people here and the town is small enough that word would get around quickly if something happened to me. Really, I'm not worried at all. I also feel safer coming in as a teacher because that's a profession that's non-intimidating and quite harmless. If I were associated with the military then I would probably feel differently.

I have lots of photos but they are really slow to upload. I had to wait 90 seconds just for Facebook to upload. There are also only 4 computers in this town that have internet access and we're really far away from any kind of it's slow. I'll upload photos when I have some time to kill or when I get somewhere with a faster connection.

I already had to be rescued by a Marine

On Sunday, the day before I was leaving for Garm, I went to the ATM to get money out for rent for my hotel in Garm and for living for two months. There is no ATM in Garm so I knew that I would need to take enough cash with me. I also needed to get money out to pay for the rent at the hotel in Dushanbe. I had about $150 in USD and like 100 Tajik Somoni and that wouldn't be enough to pay for much of anything.

My plan was to go to the ATM at the embassy, but the person who was supposed to go with me suggested that I try the Hyatt ATM first. I needed to go to the Hyatt anyway to charge the battery in my laptop. I already burnt my external speakers with a 220 volt charge and when I went to plug in my laptop to the outlet a huge spark flew out of the socket. I figured the Hyatt wouldn't let foreigners burn up their electronics.

I digress. So the ATMs at the Hyatt dispense U.S. dollars and Tajik somoni. I went back and forth between the two ATMs taking out the max allowable for those machines. I managed to get out $500 USD but I needed $1000 and I needed MORE money to pay for the hotel in Dushanbe. The machines all of a sudden said something about insufficient funds and wouldn't dispense any more money in USD or Tajik somoni. I KNEW that the insufficient funds weren't on my end so I thought I had emptied the cash machine. I was about to get frustrated because I had a cell phone but it wouldn't be working for like 3 days (don't ask) and I couldn't make a call. Just then, Robert, one my JAG dads walked into the lobby where I was. I explained to him what I was trying to do and at that point another guy walked up, someone I hadn't met before. He was a young man named Christian and was with my JAG dads. He suggested I call my bank in the U.S. because they might have a limit on the amount of money I can take out every day. I never thought about that. I told him my phone didn't work and he offered to let me use his cell phone. I kept getting a busy signal every time I tried to call the 'outside the U.S.' number. Christian also tried and also tried the 'in the U.S.' number and neither one of them were useful. I asked if I could use the internet somewhere because I could probably get another number for international calls from there. Christian offered to let me use his internet and laptop, too, to get some information. I couldn't find anything online so I asked if I could use his cell phone to call my mom in the U.S. and see if she could call the bank and then send me an e-mail. It was about 6 a.m. on Sunday morning in Florida but the number on the card said it was 24 hour service. I called my mom and it was so good to hear her voice! I told her my situation and she said she would call and send me an e-mail. I didn't hear back from her for about 20 minutes so I called her again (using Christian's phone and who knows how much that cost!) My mom said that the number she called was only if my card was lost or stolen and she would have to call back on Monday morning at 9 a.m. *sigh* I was leaving for Garm on Monday morning at 6 a.m. (not to mention that I'm 9 hours ahead of Florida). I called my Tajik contact to see if we could leave later on Monday or on Tuesday. She said she couldn't make that decision and I would have to call my CAO from the embassy. My CAO said that we had to leave at 6 a.m. So I called my local Tajik contact again and asked her to call someone in Garm to see if I could get a cash advance on my credit card at a bank in Garm. It turns out there are about 10 banks in Garm and cash advances are not possible. Then she told me that I could pay $250 at the beginning of the month and $250 at the end, so I don't need all the cash up front. AND she said Firdavs, the director of my program, goes to Dushanbe twice a month so I can ride with him next time and get some more cash.

I was so gratful that Christian was there and offered to let me use his resources. I'm not a diplomat or an official so I don't get very many perks. I have to go somewhere like the Hyatt and just hope that there are any guests there! Christian let me use his cell phone to call my mom, his hotel phone to make local calls, his internet, and he gave me a English-Tajik dictionary for Garm AND he hooked me up with another shape shifter for my electronics. I wasn't expecting to get so much help and I'm thankful for his generosity.

Crazy and frustrating things like this happen to me whenever I leave the U.S. and I wonder how I get by. Then I remember good people like Chrisitian, Robert, and Steve and thank God that there are still good people out there in this world and that somehow I found them in Tajikistan.

JAG dads

I went to the Hyatt hotel one night because there was a going away party there for one of the security people from the embassy. Dushanbe FINALLY has a Hyatt but don't let that fool you into thinking this is like Europe or something. We don't exactly know why there's a Hyatt here because there's like 200 rooms and about 5 people staying there. I'm certainly not complaining though!

Anyway, during the party I was jet lagged, sleep deprived, had an overload of info in my brain, I was meeting tons of new people (good thing), and adjusting to a new schedule...I really didn't want to be there. I was looking for Bethany, my fellow ELF, and noticed she was talking to two older men. I sat down with them and chatted for awhile. They were both JAGs there to train the Tajik military. I told them I was going to Garm and they were both like "Wooooooow! You're going to Garm?" It wasn't an envious 'wow' it was more like an "OMG what the hell are you going there for?" which is what I seem to be getting from everyone I tell. They were so worried about me even though they've never been to Garm. It was to my advantage though because they told me to wait in the lounge while they went upstairs and got some 'supplies' for me to take to Garm. The Marine Corps JAG gave me a Leatherman, an MRE, some water, and some bottles of shampoo and conditioner. The Army JAG gave me fruit cocktail, packs of crackers, and a huge bag of chocolates to take to my students. I was so grateful for everything they gave me and it was completely unexpected. They were very generous and I'm sure I'll be happy I have those crackers when I get Tajik tummy and need some comfort food.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Tajiks could do a lot worse

I've only been in Dushanbe for 3 days but I already feel very comfortable in here.  The Tajik people seem very kind and from what I see...orderly.  There is hardly any traffic on the road, mainly because people can't afford cars.  There are only about 850,000 people who live in this city and only a little over 7 million people in the whole country.   It's hard to imagine a city with so many people and the traffic is so sparse.  There are some electric buses that run on clean energy, but when the electricity goes out, as I'm told it often does, then the buses stop running.  So, needless to say they aren't relying on this completely for transportation.  There are also a few buses running throughout the day and there are lots of mini buses and private cars that stick taxi signs on top of their cars.  There is no registered taxi service.  The Tajik people even STOP for pedestrians!  Oh my goodness I wanted to hug all the necks of the people who stopped for me crossing the road.  Today I crossed a road at a cross walk and the street was every wide.  I didn't see a light with walk or not walk but I was walking on the zebra stripe on the road.  I looked both ways and one way there was a lot of traffic coming.  There were 3 lanes of cars that stopped so that I could cross the street.  They didn't stop because I'm a foreigner, there were Tajiks crossing also.  They just stop for pedestrians, no matter where they are.  What a relief!  I've NEVER lived in a country where that happens.  Even in the U.S. people don't always give pedestrians the right of way.  In other countries I've been in it's like taking your life into your own hands to cross the street.  In the last Muslim country I was in, the capital city had about 15 million people and something like 2 traffic lights in the whole city!  I remember I loved crossing the street because it was a challenge.  It's also a capital city that is listed as the second most dangerous country to drive in (and be a pedestrian in) after Singapore.  

The Muslim country I was in last was quite scary and it wasn't a place for a single western woman to be.   The verbal (and sometimes physical) harrassement in the street was constant and it was exhausting every time I went outside.  I was always on guard.  It it quite a contrast from the Tajik people here.  Men and women look, but there is no hissing or words being thrown at me.  I am not letting my guard down and definitely keeping an eye on my surroundings but not having to face the verbal harrassment makes this place much more comfortable and tolerable.  Another difference from the last Muslim country I was in is that men and women walk down the street here and hold hands.  It was so nice to see a woman dressed like we would in the U.S. with a Tajik man, walking down the street holding hands.  I would NEVER see that in the last Muslim country I was in.  In fact, in that country the men and women never walked together at all.  It was sad.  Here, the Tajiks type of Islam is much more secular.  They are much more open.

I was told today that the economic crisis has hit Tajikistan quite hard.  Something like 80% of the population of Dushanbe left during the civil war and stayed outside after war.  Others left after the civil war to find better jobs.  As it turns out, the countries where these Tajiks have gone, such as Russia and Kazakhstan, are facing their own economic challenges.  As the Russians and Kazakhs are looking for jobs and taking jobs that wouldn't have taken before, the Tajiks are being forced out and returning home.  These are often young men who are jobless, broke, and angry...and it's hot here.  It's a bad combination and apparently as time goes there are more of these young men returning home.  Apparently the president of Tajikistan wants to set out up a decree stating that he wants the Tajiks to have a year's supply of food (it could be more, but I can't remember exactly right now).  Most of the Tajiks don't even know where they will be getting dinner tonight from.  I don't even know if "I" could afford a year's supply of food if I was back in the U.S.    

The part of Dushanbe that I've seen is a quiet place.  Walking around and observing people in this city the Tajiks don't seem like violent people. I haven't heard people speaking loudly to get attention or shouting at each other or fighting in the street.  Although I've only been here a few days so I probably should give it some time.  My overall feeling though is that they aren't trouble makers.  They seem to be people who want to live a comfortable life.  It could be because the people I see are young men and women and I'm sure they've had enough of war and death.

"This is not an official U.S. Department of State website.  The thoughts and views in this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of the English Language Fellow program or the U.S. Department of State.

Already stories of the Tajik civil war

After the fall of the Soviet Union, all of the countries that were part of the Soviet Union broke out into civil war.  Tajikistan was no exception.  The civil war ended in 1996, 13 years ago, and the wounds are still healing.  Half of the population of Tajikistan is under the age of 18 and it is a generation of people who were not too young to remember the horrors of that time

Today a Tajik woman, who is about 21 years old, told me about her experience in the civil war here in Dushanbe.  She said that she and her family lived on the outskirts of town and was in the line of fire between the Soviet implemented government trying to keep control and the opposition.   She said that there was machine gun fire every day and every night and no one in Dushanbe slept for about 2 years.  The machine gun fire was constant and they were firing machine guns and bazookas at each other over civilian houses in the hills just on the outskirts of Dushanbe.  This woman told me that her father was a doctor at the time and her mother was a teacher.  Her father was warned in advance that there would be a war and he was advised to take all his money out of the bank because he wouldn't be able to access it.  He did as he was told and spent the money on buying about two years worth of food and supplies and kept them in the garage.  He bought things such as flour, rice, and water. In the end, his decision making paid off because the country DID erupt into civil war and this woman and her family stayed in their house for a year and only left a few times.  She said that her father owned a house on the other side of Dushanbe, near where the Soviet army was staying, and they would sometimes move to that house to stay for awhile and then go back to their house in the hills when they thought the fighting might have stopped.  It turned out that the fighting went on and on and when they would hear the machine gun fire and see the bazookas coming out they would go back to the house on the other side of Dushanbe.  She said most education stopped for about a year because there was no heat or fires in the schools and the children didn't have shoes or coats to wear.  She was lucky that her parents were well educated and she and her siblings were home schooled by her mother.  She said that her family didn't suffer nearly as much as most other people in Dushanbe and the rest of Tajikistan.

She told a story of a woman who had been in a small, isolated village in the south of the country. This woman was running to get away from the village that was under fire and it was freezing cold and she didn't have shoes on.  This woman ran and ran for miles and when she got a village where she could be safe, she looked down and her feet were nothing but red nubs.  It was so cold and she didn't have shoes and she was literally running for her life that she didn't feel the pain of her feet being eaten away.

I know this is only the beginning of these types of stories.  In a few days I'll be traveling to Garm where the "losers" of the war are and it will be interesting to hear their side of the story.



Friday, August 28, 2009

Arriving and Settling In

I made it Dushanbe, Tajikistan after many hours of flying and a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. Everything went surprisingly smoothly. In fact, I don't have anything to complain about! Isn't that great?! When arrived at the airport to fly out of Jacksonville I told Delta that my final stop was Tajikistan. I would only fly with them until Istanbul and then change airlines to Turkish Air. The attendant at Delta in Jacksonville was very careful and took her time and made sure the computer said the right stuff so my bags would go all way to Tajikistan and I wouldn't have to claim them in Istanbul and check in again and pay excess baggage. When I arrived in Tajikistan they were there waiting for me. What a relief!

I had a small carry on suitcase and my back pack; both were PACKED to max. I took essentials in case my luggage was lost. That happened to me in Egypt; I was there for a week with no luggage! So I was obviously happy when I saw my luggage on dusty baggage claim rack in Dushanbe. The funny part is that the small suitcase that was my carry on never left my sight for the entire 36 hours it took me to get there. When I got to the apartment I would be staying for a few days I counted my bags and instead of 4 I only had 3! WTF? The bag that had stayed with me for like 15,000 miles or whatever was gone, but I had all the rest of my luggage that I THOUGHT might get lost! What happened was when the embassy staff person picked me up from the airport a porter took our bags and put them into the Embassy van, but it wasn't the car I was going in. All my other bags made it to the car I was going in, but the other embassy van wasn't going to the same place. So, Tahmina, our local embassy staff person took me to an and apartment, got me settled in, and said she would find my bag. I was absolutely exhausted and wasn't all that worried. After I had been asleep for about 2 hours sleep Tahmina was banging on my door; she had been out searching for my bag! She called the embassy driver and went to several locations and she ended up finding it at the Hyatt Hotel. Thank goodness! So it's a happy ending to the luggage story! :-)

All my flights were really good. I had heard horror stories about Turkish Air but I thought it was one of the best flights I've had. The seats were roomy and comfortable and the attendants were polite and spoke English and Turkish and probably Russian, too. The best part about that flight were the representatives from Congress that were on the plane. I sat next to one of them and we chatted for quite awhile. He said they had traveled to Tunisia, Israel, Turkey, and Tajikistan doing stuff that I probably shouldn't mention here. They would ask questions and report back to the U.S. Senator that they work for. These are the people that draft legislation; I'm not really sure what that means, but I met those people that do it. There were about 8 of them and there was another group of Americans going to the Tjstan to film a documentary in Khujand. I also met a girl going to work on her doctoral dissertation in Conflict Resolution and I met another girl going just to study Tajik. I was really really really shocked to see so many Americans going to a place that most Americans have never heard of.

I went to the embassy yesterday and had a security briefing. It wasn't as scary as I thought and they wouldn't be sending me to Garm if they thought I was in any danger. I've done enough research to know about the place and the problems with the government and the opposition and I think they last thing the opposition wants to do is get a foreigner involved in their dispute. Thankfully! Let's just hope they don't change tactics!

Last night there was also a party at the Marines house. It was a going away party for one of the embassy staff and a welcome party for a new Marine. I just want to stop and say here that the Marines are sooooo hot! This is the first time I've lived in a foreign country where I see American military and I'm not complaining at all. I went just to make myself known to the embassy staff and it was a good time to meet with people and make contacts. The Senate delegation was there, too. They are all based of Washington, D.C. and I just want to say that they were a great group of people. They were intelligent and I found them to be all around good people. They were good representatives of the U.S.

After the Marine party the representatives for the represtatives in Congress invited me out to dinner with them. We rode in the armored embassy van (way cool!) and then went and sat in an open air restaurant. Smart!

I have to much to say but don't feel like I can express it coherently right now. I'm still jet lagged. I'm 9 hours ahead of eastern time in the U.S. and I was wide awake at 3:30 a.m. and never did get back to sleep. I also have some weird blurry vision and watery eye syndrome going on right now. It could be from the dust storm that's blown in. Apparently that's a common occurence here.

Tahmina, our local staff person and HUGE help for me, said she spoke with man who is the head of project I'll be working with in Garm. I'll be the first English teacher ever to go there and I'll be training teachers and helping them with budgeting and admin stuff and getting organized. This town/village is so remote and lacks electricity in the cold winter months. On one of their budget reports I saw that they allotted so much money for wood and coal in the winter so they can build a fire in the stove to try to heat up the building where classes are held. The place is so remote that in the spring time the road washes out and travel there is impossible from the capital and they can't travel out either; there is no airport there. In the winter time the weather is so severe that the people become isolated out there because the road conditions and cold weather make it impossible to travel to the capital city and vice versa. I have a long road ahead of me with this project and I have eight weeks to give them as much help as I can. I can't wait to go there!

I would also like to say that I really really really really like the Tajiks. They are very mellow and I like their kind of Islam. I haven't had any men harrassing me in the street or saying inappropriate things to me. They either ignore me or just look. I'm fine with both. I'd also like to add that the Tajik men are HOT! They are a good mix of Asian, European, and Russian and some of them have amazing bone structure! The women can wear traditional Tajik clothes if they want and many do. They are beautiful dresses although not always the most flattering. They also have the freedom to walk the streets alone if they choose and don't always have to have a male escort. I found that the Tajiks are a people that want their own identity. They don't want to be Russians and they don't want to be Iranian either; they are Muslim but the government doesn't support extremism. They want to be Tajiks. Even if they are Tajiks who list almost all prices in U.S. dollars. I'm comforted by that!

Disclaimer: "This website is not an official site of the U.S. Department of State website. The views and
information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the views of the English
Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Off into the wild unknown

Well, tomorrow I'm off into a country that Google barely even recognizes. When I type in the words "map of Tajikistan" Google asks me if I mean Pakistan. There were times when I was worried about that and times when I questioned what the hell I am doing going to a country that Google barely recognizes. As time came closer to go to my orientation in Washington, D.C. and I received my first paycheck then I began to get really excited about a new adventure.

I'll be teaching in Garm, Tajikistan for the first two months of my post. I'll be teaching in the English Access Microscholarship program. This program is extremely competitive and gives under privileged children between the ages of 12-18 a chance to compete for a scholarship to study in the U.S. I will going to train teachers at this particular site and also work with students. Garm is an isolated village in the center of Tajikistan and is also very conservative when it comes to religion. I will be at this location for two months. There is an American organization there called Mercy Corps and I'm hoping to meet with people working there and understand more about their work in Tajikistan. From what I've been reading they are helping the Tajiks to grow food and build green houses and also training Tajik women to be midwives. There is also a German organization there helping the Tajiks with agriculture.

I will be staying at the only hotel in Garm. I was told by my contact at the U.S. Embassy that she talked to a local government official who talked to the director of the hotel and tried to get me a good price for staying for two months. A good price is gonna throw me back $500 USD a month!!! It's definitely not Thailand prices!

I've been packing as many things as I can for the trip and enough to last 10 months. Apparently the health care there is rudimentary, even in the capital Dushanbe. I've packed 3 bags at 50 lbs a piece to take with me. It's a lot of clothes because the second part of my post I'll be in Khujand, Tajikistan where it snows heavily so I had to pack an entire winter wardrobe. I'm a Florida girl...I don't do cold weather, especially in a place with no heat in public buildings. So, I'm preparing for the worst and packing warm winter clothes. I also packed razors, face cream, deodorant, tampons, batteries, and stuff that I know I won't be able to find there. Shipping to Tajikistan will be expensive and receiving is even more expensive. When I receive shipments I'll have to pay import duties and taxes which will probably cost more than the shipment. Therefore, I'm taking everything with me that I can think of that I MIGHT need in the next 10 months.

I've known about this position since May and I have been eaten up for the past few months with anticipation. The time is here now! I'm looking forward to a BUSY, productive, and fun year helping the Tajiks to help themselves.