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.