February 1, 2010
Instead of heading home over the holidays this year I traveled to Uzbekistan for two weeks. There is a somewhat strange relationship between Tajikistan and its neighbour to the West. It sometimes felt like two siblings, whose childhood quarrel evolved into an extended stand-off resulting in a sad estrangement between the two. Indeed, families who have been separated by the arbitrarily* located borders find it difficult to visit one another due to the troublesome visa application process. (*The borders may not be that arbitrarily placed – I think that when the Soviet Union still had power in Central Asia, they placed many of the borders so that there was no one dominant nationality in any given country, thus creating instability and protecting themselves against being overthrown).
Samarkand and Bukhara – two of the cities that once belonged to Tajikistan but are now part of Uzbekistan (stolen, is how some Tajiks like to describe it)– had the largest resemblance to ‘home’ with the same language and food, though Uzbekistan’s relative wealth was certainly apparent. In Samarkand, houses (at least in the neighbourhood we stayed in) had beautifully carved gateways and towering walls surrounding their well manicured courtyards. The historic buildings had been well maintained and repaired as needed (aside from the museum that was suspiciously torn down one day much to the shock and dismay of the locals). Streets were well paved and locations of pedestrian cross-walks and bus stop had illuminated signs. There were outdoor strip malls filled with bridal gowns, clothing, and touristy paraphernalia. One of the more subtle differences could be found in people’s ability to collect things – The family we stayed with in Samarkand had an extensive collection of very expensive tapestries. It is important to mention here, that Samarkand is one of the larger cities in Uzbekistan and as we moved to smaller towns, the abodes certainly became increasingly humble. But even the smaller town, differences were there – such as the use of gas for heating in homes. It’s AMAZING the heat a gas powered radiator can generate (compared to my electric powered – hence indirectly water powered – radiator in Khorog, which is rendered useless when there’s a power outage and isn’t really all that efficient when it is working). Natural resources is one of those sore spots between U-stan and T-stan. Uzbekistan has gas. Tajikistan has water. Neither country seems to be particularly good at sharing which seems to fuel the tensions between them.
Suzanni are the local tapestries that can be found in abundance in Uzbekistan. We were told that once a girl hits a certain age (usually 12 or so) she will start to embroider one of these. The shapes and symbols usually document her experiences and achievements and these will be presented to the family of the husband when she gets married. In essence, it’s supposed to act as a diary of sorts. While most prominently feature four concentric rings (which we were told signify the four elements), they vary considerably between regions of the country in terms of style. By the end of the trip, we were nearly talking like experts, asking about if they dies were natural or synthetic, was it hand or machine made, how old was it, how fine is the stitching, etc. etc. We also learned about the significance of some of the major ‘flaws’ quite frequent in many of them. Unfinished embroidery or mismatched colours exist because women want to leave something to be continued. Often later generations will fill in some of the missing spots with different colours so there is a record of them being a part of the maker’s life. Mis-aligned sections happen when different women (aunts, mothers, grandmothers) work on two sections of the same work. If there is a miscommunication, than the sides will not line up quite right, but are no less beautiful, and perhaps more beautiful because of this. An unfinished edge on larger bedcovers is meant to signify the family lineage and once it is placed on the newlywed’s bed, it will welcome more children.
Medressas medressas everywhere, and not a class to teach
In addition to plov and Suzanis, Uzbekistan is certainly the land of medressas. The architecture and the tile work on these structures is stunning. The grand facades left me feeling tiny and it was hard to believe that these beautiful and elaborate buildings were built for teaching (it really does put the campus at Waterloo to shame).
Sadly, the classrooms were abandoned when the Soviets rolled in and now they operate as tourist-traps…er…shops, packed to the brim with suzani and other knick-knacks. The highly tourist-centred vibe in the cities was not something I was prepared for at all. Sure, I figured I would be able to pick up some sweet cheap rugs and maybe some wood-carved thingies, but each place we visited was completely saturated with shops and stalls of ‘authentic Uzbekistan’ handicrafts. I was not anticipating the English signs informing me I could pay with my visa and have things shipped home by DHL, the high-speed internet cafes that would burn my pictures to disc, and the shop-keepers who knew exactly what I wanted to hear as a buyer and could haggle with me in five different languages. There were definitely some pros and cons to traveling here in the low-season. Pros: Not having to contend with giant crowds of other tourists (so it was easier to 1. get my acro-claustro-phobic ass up and down those minarets**, and 2. delude myself into thinking I was having an ‘authentic’ experience). Cons: Being the only tourist targets in town and being attacked with wares. **Contributing to the claustrophobia were the couples who would dot the stairway, taking advantage of the pitch black to have some private alone time. Grabbing random legs while clambering up dark stairwells = not so comforting.
Now, while my bank account feels that scoring “super-discounts!” on hotels and ‘stuff’ is an obvious pro, my conscience and gut often made me feel it was a serious con. I’ve never really traveled anywhere where the local economy is primarily dependent on tourism so people’s desperation to sell things at any price resulted in overwhelming feelings of guilt at either not buying anything or buying something at a tiny fraction of the starting price. (And yes – I realize the starting price is jacked up to about 400% of the actual cost – but I still feel like an ass when that carpet is all that guy’s going to sell for the next six months).
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
…but actually, it’s New Years. Most of the images and customs that I am familiar with at home around the holidays are quite prominent in the city streets of Central Asia (thank you, soviet occupiers) – Essentially, the religious significance was stripped from Christmas (is that really so different from home?) and the remaining façade and all it’s wonderful commercialistic glory was shifted back a week. This wasn’t without a few minor adjustments; Santa Clause is now Bobo Barfi (Grandfather Snow). Rudolph was replaced with Bobo’s tiger friend. Christmas trees are New-Years trees. Same for Christmas presents. It was also interesting to walk into a house-wares store in Tashkent only a few days before New Years to see the same pandemonium you would on December 23 at the Pottery Barn: People frantically asking “will mom really like this musical snow-globe of Bobo Barfi? What about these New-Years trees decorations? Maybe this pewter picture frame!? Next year I’m starting my New-Years shopping in JULY!!” amongst the chaos of other seasonal crap that has been repeatedly sifted through and strewn about by frantic shoppers and lines of impatient people at the cash register and gift-wrapping table. I must admit, earlier in December I was very nostalgic about missing the whole shopping thing this year – being at the Eaton Centre with all the decorations and holiday music, amongst the hustle and bustle as I look for gifts for my family. Homesickness does crazy things to your head….this store made me remember why I make my own presents.
My actual Christmas was spent in Khiva, were I wandered around all day doing the usual (Minaret, Medressa, Suzanni, repeat) trying to forget the significance of the day and noticing an unusually high number of wedding processions walking around (to me, 5 weddings in less than one square kilometre is high). At night, we ventured over to the ghost-town posh-hotel that was too expensive for us to actually stay at and had Christmas dinner with some of the hotel staff, who realized the significance of the day to us and tried to help us get over being away from family by showering us with presents of wine and vodka. This resulted in waltzing to “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” which was playing on a Russian TV station. It will certainly be a Christmas to remember.
Other remnants of the Soviet era included:
The subways (exciting!!) in Tashkent were elaborately decorated (complete with chandeliers) and meticulously cleaned. Actually, the wide open spaces felt more like ballrooms than they did subway stations – they put the TTC to shame. I would have taken pictures – but the police men situated every 10 feet didn’t really like that…
The Khorog – Dushanbe (and back!) Drive
Despite being warned several times that this would be the worst drive of my life, I was still excited for this trip that takes anywhere between 12 hours (Highly rare and on the verge of suicidal) and infinity (the most I had heard recently was 22). The ride there was relatively painless (as far as Tajikistan car-rides go) – arriving at the parking lot at 6am, waiting until 6:40 for any cars to show up, haggling over the price, settling on a price higher than what we wanted to pay, waiting for other passengers (which actually violated our agreement, thus resulted in re-haggling), finally hitting the road at 7:30, only one bribe paid (by another passenger), only being stuck for construction once, arriving in 17 hours and only being asked for additional funds once. The roads were horrendous –with dips of eroding pavement, mounds of rocks that had recently fallen from the towering clifs and sometimes barely wide enough for a single lane of traffic. The views were spectacular – The road drove into deep and narrow gorges with barely any sky visible, back into open planes that revealed panoramas of snow covered mountains, all the time following the river separating Tajikistan and Afghanistan and spotted with small Afghan communities and donkey-trails. The river is like a mirror that reflects Tajikistan from 100 years ago. My descriptions and pictures do no justice to the beauty – you just have to come see it for yourself.
The ride back was a bit more eventful. There was an earthquake in the region (which we did not notice over the inherent bumping/jostling/shaking/jolting of the car ride) that left several chunks of the road impassable due to landslides. Luckily, we found this out when we stopped for dinner so we at least had a guest house to crash in. The next day, the landslides were “cleared” – though we still had to wait for a truck, resting at about a 30 degrees towards falling over the edge, to be dug out before we could make it over the same precarious stretch of road ourselves.
It was certainly a trip of highs and lows, but overall, it was a nice replacement for the family and turkey dinners I was missing at home.
As always – a bundle more pictures on Flickr.
November 27, 2009
Барф (Barf): Snow
This morning around 8am, the first snow of the year began to fall on Khorog. I had made my way into the centre of Khorog since I was supposed to be speaking at the University, but no one told me class was cancelled. So instead, I took some pictures. It was nice to wander around the park and enjoy the sound-dampening effect of the snow and the complete change in scenery. When the snow is particularly heavy I can no longer see the mountains, thus eliminating the feeling of living in a bowl. However, as the snow lightens and the clouds rise but are still low enough to cover the peaks, the mountains seem taller and more dominating than ever.
Unlike Toronto, there is no immediate (or any) road salting/sanding system here. Consequently, and much like in Toronto, the first day of snow causes some drivers to take it easy (as in my driver into town that drove at about 2km/hr the entire way) while catching others off guard – I’ve already seen two and heard of one accident in a two hour span. The slippy streets are also proving to be fun/disastrous for pedestrians with kids skating around and others – me, for example – wildly flailing their arms around, trying not to wipe out. (Apparently the snowy/icy roads are more common in UPD, the area of town where I work, as most of the day it sits in the shadow of the mountain – brrr!)
November 23, 2009
So I’m a little, okay – a lot – behind with my blogging. Fall has come and is quickly out the door and I feel like I’ve barely had time to comment on some of the changes that I have noticed with the changing weather.
During the summer months, I wouldn’t necessary describe the Tajik landscape as ‘lush’ or ‘green’, but there has been a noticeable difference as the weather has become colder. Driving through the villages, the vibrant reds and gold of the trees beautifully contrast with the mountains, which seem to have taken on a purple-ish hue. Fields that were once waist high with wheat and hay are now cut down to the ground and dotted with piles of mulch, which I have still not figured out the use for. Houses are topped with pyramids of bundled hay that will be used during the winter months as animal food, and as an additional benefit, I imagine it provides some sort of insulation to housing. As well, the previously barren roads and fields are now flooded with sheep, goats and cows that have come down from their summer pastures – when driving through the districts (as rare as that might be), I can now expect to hit at least one livestock traffic jam.
In Khorog centre, the mountains surrounding our little valley have become white on the tops with the snow slowly creeping down, although it has not yet settled in the town itself. The trees in the park have turned from green to yellow and are now shedding their leaves, which women are busily sweeping up every morning when I walk to work.
Pedestrian traffic on the roads has remained at a fairly constant volume, but has become substantially duller as everyone bundles up in black jackets and women have traded in their traditional dresses for skinny-leg pants and their peep-toe sandals for knee-high stiletto boots. The colour and vibrancy that has disappeared with the dresses is partially made up for in women’s scarves, which are worn for both fashion and function.
3) The market
Living in cities and suburbs in Canada I have only been vaguely aware of how changing seasons affects the availability of produce. While items usually become more plentiful when they are in season, it’s not like they disappear when they are out of season. So it has been interesting to see the fluctuation on fruits and vegetables at the market – During the summer the main item would change from week to week where I could find an abundance of apricots one and tomatoes the next – but there was always a decent amount of variety. Now stalls are overflowing with apples and root vegetables while other fresh produce is becoming increasingly scarce.
Those are the main things that I have noticed changing as the mercury continues to drop – which itself has resulted in perpetually cold extremities, scheduled blackouts in the morning and evenings, pilates ‘warm-up’ sessions, and the consumption of mass quantities of tea. As the leaves continue to fall from the trees, the people continue to bundle up in their drab attire and Khorog becomes increasingly brown and grey, a part of me looks forward to the snow to brighten things up. The other part is petrified now that I have started to experience what it’s like without central heating….
September 29, 2009
14 hours of driving + 3 Cars + 2 Forty-percent-plus iron springs + 2 Fortresses + 1 hotspring + 15 naked women + 1 natural womb + 1 set of lost car keys + 1 lock jimmying + 1 hot wiring + 1 mixed tape + 3 Canadian girls = 1 awesome weekend.
When finding a car to travel, it is important to show up at least two hours before you actually want to leave – not realizing this before hand, we didn’t make it out on the road until about 11:20am. Leg one of our trip to Ishkashim saw us travel in a packed Marshrutka for just over 3 hours – a mini-van of glory which was missing the rear window (replaced with a piece of ply-wood) and the back of the front passenger seat. As we drove down the valley along the river towards Ishkashim, we stopped a couple times to drink from some springs that tasted a lot like bubbly, liquid pennies – perhaps this was due to the 45% iron content in the water – No need to worry about iron deficiency on this trip, that’s for sure. As we continued on, I was excited to see the closed mountain valleys open up and witness the closest thing to a horizon that I’ve seen since being here – I must admit, it did cause a little bit of agoraphobia. The broadened landscape also included many fields of rocks left behind from previous rock/landslides. The distance from the mountains which these slides had traveled was astounding – something that would be amazing to watch – on the TV anyway.
Drinking 45% iron water
We pulled into Ishkashim with no idea how we were continuing our journey or how much farther we actually wanted to go. Somehow, we ended up in the backseat of a Toyota Corolla that would take us to Kakaha Fortress about an hour and a half a way and then a town about 20km past that. We were aware (thanks to the Lonely Planet guide) that Tajik border guards were currently occupying the fortress but that they mainly resided in the upper fortress, so we proceeded cautiously as we snapped shots of the historical site. Inevitably, two border guards showed up – whether they were on their schedulled patrol or just coming out to shoo us away, I’m not sure. I’m also not sure why, but I was more afraid of their reluctance to break a smile or even a grin than I was of their giant guns. I’m not sure what explains my lack of knee-jerk terror at the sight of a machine gun – It’s not like I’ve grown up around guns to be comfortable with them. Perhaps it’s the absence of seeing their effects that leaves me with an underdeveloped sense of caution and fear. Anyway, as we drove on, our drivers made the suggestion of continuing on to stay in a village near the Yamchun Fort and Bibi Fatima springs. Since these were locations we were debating visiting anyway, we figured that we may as well extend our journey. And so our adventure continued – for a total of 7 hours of driving in one day which finished with the ascent of a very steep, very narrow road in the dark, resulting in one frantic evacuation and car pushing at one point.
The beginning of the Wakhan Valley
Lone tee in the wind
Wakhan Valley in the moonlight
We stayed the night in a friend of the drivers house – I am still not sure whether this was a legitimate homestay or whether we just crashed some woman’s house. Regardless, she was super sweet, with her 7 children – the yougest with curly hair of gold…kind of like Cindy Brady…Mattresses were laid out on the floor for the three of us, which seemed to disappoint our two drivers who were made to sleep on the porch. Early-ish the next morning, we ate breakfast and bid our new friend adieu as we head a kilometer up the road to the next fort. Even though it was quite foggy that morning, the views were magnificent and the vastness of the valley was just breath-taking.
Clenching to the wall for dear life
As we were leaving the Fort, we ran into some other travelers from Poland who had just been at the hot springs. The woman said it was amazing and happened to mention the hilarity of getting into the tiny pool with a bunch of naked local women….I didn’t really hear anything else she said since I was stuck on the whole ‘naked in a bathtub’ thing which, admittedly, has always made me squeemish at gyms and spas. Ultimately I decided to ante up – this was a once in a lifetime thing, and could definitely be used towards my ‘do something that you are afraid of/that makes you uncomfortable” quota so I better just get over myself and do it. Because the spring alternates 30 minutes between males and females, we had to wait about 40 minutes for our turn. It was only as I walked into the little change-room with about 12 other women that I began to panic a bit, but again, forced myself to get over it, peel down and jump in. After my awkward decent into the pool I realized that the spring itself was actually quite amazing – a man-made building completely concealed the natural cave and spring, which had smooth grey walls, awesome stalactite formations and clean hot water. I was also pleasantly suprised by the lack of sulfur smell. Eventually I noticed the 1.5′ x 1′ hole in the wall leading to a smaller cave – to which a local lady gestured that I should go inside. After I declined and thought to myself – “are you kidding!? How can a person fit in there? And who knows what’s in there!” – she herself proceeded to climb on in. A bit of back-story – In addition to being beneficial for ailments in general, the Bibi Fatima hot spring spring is believed to improve fertility in women because the womb-like shape of the spring is thought to represent that of – well I can only assume Bibi Fatima. Anyway – after seeing that a human can successfully make it in and out of that hole, I put aside my claustrophobia and climbed in to the womb. The water in this tiny, one-person cave was much hotter than in the main pool and if you looked up there was a tunnel that presumably continued to the outside. Given that I was afraid to put my feet down, I’m not sure this was as relaxing an experience as it should have been, but at least I can say that I’ve done it.
Chaos ensued after we left the spring when we learned that while waiting for us, our driver had accidentally thrown his only set of car keys into the river, essentially leaving us stranded and with our backpacks locked in the trunk. Then the lady who is in charge of the springs also chased the three of us down and started harassing us about not having paid to go in the spring when we had indeed, at the command of the other women there, slipped our money into a box by the spring door. Once we caved and gave her more money we were left in peace to try and break our way into the car while the owners of the car tried to find the keys on the bottom of the rushing river. Highlights of this ordeal include: Our new travel companion busting a 2′ piece of barbed wire out of her bag to try and help us unlock the car, being consoled/yelled at by 5 women bundled in 25lbs of layers to retain the heat of the springs, an upside down man trying to hotwire the car, getting the car started with a screwdriver only to realize the power steering had been dismantled, getting the car started again, getting back to Ishkashim.
The outside of Bibi Fatima and the river that ate the car keys
Our driver trying to break into his car with barbed wire
Once we returned to Ishakshim, we were back in the position of trying to find a ride back to Khorog – quite the ordeal on a Sunday. But, after about an hour of waiting and haggling and waiting some more, our driver pulled up in some crazy contraption they called a car: Picture the body of a bright red, vinage Volkswagon rabbit on the wheels and suspention of a monster truck. Reluctantly, but in desperation, we crawled in to this dune-buggy of insanity and made our way home. Notables on this leg of the trip: The heating system: blaring and the source may as well have been directly from the exaust. The music: Again, blaring and an interesting Russian fusion of death metal and polka (Think Rammstein + The chicken dance). The driver: A really tense man who had a thing for driving as far left on the road as possible. This is problematic for two reasons – First, traiffic in Tajikistan typically flows on the right side. Second, the river, therefore 10m-20m drops, ran along the left side of the road and given the drivers less than rapid reflexes, I thought we were doomed on several occasions. On the plus side, it was a quick ride home since the driver liked to drive about 100km/h (an estimate, given that the dial read 10km/h for the entire trip) which is completely unheard of on these road, but given the suped-up suspension, the ride was relatively smooth.
More pictures of this weekend on flicker at
September 24, 2009
Today I gave my first presentation at work as part of a training session for the people who will be monitoring our project impacts on schools in the GBAO region. I was feeling relatively confident about it (relatively is the key word – normally I lose sleep and have anxiety attacks in the 24 hours preceding a presentation. Today there was minimal anxiety and almost indifference – perhaps the mass quantities of Vodka I drank last night are a cure to my usually overactive nerves) until my audience walked in: A group of 50 something year old men who seemed to be thinking “I have been doing this so long, why am I being subjected to this” and then when they realized that I was the one who was doing the presentation, following this up with “and by HER??”.
Admittedly, I also questioned whether these men really could or would respect me or buy into the importance of what I was saying since they are older, more experienced, local and male while I am young, inexperienced, female and from Canada? Indeed, even my translator (of the same age, nationality and gender as my audience) seemed to take what I was saying and make it ‘more valid’ with his elaborate ad-libbing and overshadowing (Often my three sentence blurb turned into a three minute translation and I was several times notified when I continued with what was left on my slide that “He had already covered that”.) And despite the fact that I was the one giving the presentation, it was almost as if I was invisible. Granted, I was speaking a different language than everyone else, but people barely acknowledged that I was in the room with eye-contact or a nod, let alone directing any questions to me (via the interpreter). Rather, they just directed any questions to questions with the assumption that he was the one who knew all the answers. Anyway, this was the first time that I felt like the legitimacy of the message was actually dependent on the person delivering it.
I also had to wonder how much these men would buy into the message itself, regardless of who was delivering it. From talking with co-workers in my organization and with other expats in the community, it sounds like professionals in Tajikistan, whether in education, health or otherwise, seem to be resistant to incorporating new ideas, regardless of the new techniques, knowledge, skills that could enhance one’s practice. I’ve seen glimpses of this phenomenon before during my masters and previous fellowship, with well established physicians resisting advances in medical education and practices simply because it’s not the way that they learned it. But what I have experienced before is nothing compared to resistance I’ve heard about here, where you can be chastised for even suggesting an alternative method.
I must clarify that this ‘I know better than you’ attitude seems to be limited to people educated and trained during the soviet era and is even reversed in the younger generation amongst whom my Canadian identity carries a lot of weight. Specifically, there is a general belief that because I’m from a developed country I automatically know more about everything and my young(ish) age, lack of experience and gender are completely disregarded (not that I’m complaining about the gender thing as this is a step in the right direction – I’m just shoving it here for contrasting purposes).
To be honest I’m not sure I’m comfortable with either of these roles in which I find myself placed. I know that I know more than nothing, but also know that I don’t know everything.
September 23, 2009
The summer is on its way out and the autumn, it’s way in. My arms become pleasantly numb on my early morning walk to work as I still insist on wearing short sleeves to work. Leaves are changing and falling, and snow is making a lasting appearance on the mountain tops in the early morning chill. It’s all very…brisk. As is my office which is nestled on the shady side of the mountain and doesn’t warm up until well into the afternoon – if ever. Layers of sweater-vests, cardigans and scarves are mandatory now.
The rain made it’s first real appearance yesterday – too early according to the locals. I have already been soaked by a passing car driving through a puddle (which are abundant on the pot-hole laden roads). Also rolling in are the apples! Everyday a bushel end up on my desk from co-workers gardens – I have so far bitten into three that have worms, but am starting to regard them as extra protein rather than gross. Provided the rain can hold out just a little bit longer, the fall is promising to be beautiful in Khorog.
September 15, 2009
All summer long I had heard about how come September 1st there is a different vibe in Khorog once the school year starts (the date is the same EVERY year) – I can verify that this is completely true. In the morning on the first, I could stand on my front porch and hear opening ceremonies blaring from the nearby government buildings or local university: statements in Shugni followed by the wild cheers of what sounded like the entire city. I have never heard people so excited to return to class. The normally barren streets that seemed so peaceful on my walk to work in the morning were now flooded with boys, girls and university students excitedly making their way to school. This new hustle and bustle has persisted over the second week of school and has provided a wealth of visual entertainment to brighten up my walk to work in the morning.
Something I had been wondering about here is how girls decide whether they will wear their traditional dress to school or a modern outfit. I wonder if girls judge other girls based on what they wear like they do in North America – whether ones in traditional dress would be considered prudent or the ones in modern clothes considered trashy (these descriptors are based on the types of criticisms I remember from school and movies like Mean Girls or Heathers – not what I have heard or seen here). Do they base their friendships on what they wear? Are some girls cooler than others based on their type of clothes? It seems that at the elementary level, these issues have been eliminated by the use of uniforms. While not all children wear the same outfit, boys generally wear dress pants and shirts (and I have seen the occasional three piece suit) and girls wear black bottoms and white blouses. I presume this flexibility is to give parents the option of how much they will spend on an outfit, but this is only an assumption. All the girls who are aged roughly ten and under adorn their hair with giant white poofs of taffeta – it is very cute and slightly ridiculous at the same time. I’m not sure whether this is only this year’s trend or something that is more traditional in nature. The older girls are ultra-fashionable, often pushing the limits with the length of their skirts and the height of their heels (yes – tweens and teens wearing black patent heels to class).
While the kids in primary and secondary school amaze me with their fashion sense (I remember wearing my dad’s jeans and t-shirts to school when I was in grade 7 – fairly indicative of my fashion sense both then and now) I have been absolutely blown away by the fashion show outside of the university. Women (dressed in both traditional dresses and uber-chic fashion-ware) wait for class with their high end (looking, anyway) purses and shoes with their hair painstakingly coiffed (contrast this with me, with my MEC backpack, chacos and ‘I can’t be bothered to brush my hair’ ponytail). A friend from work has told me that it is more important to be dressed to impressed than it is to have your school work done when you come to lectures. Again, I can’t help but contrast this to my days back in waterloo where it was normal to show up un-showered, in pyjama pants and oversized sweat-shirts with some sort of sock-birkenstock combo.
The last thing that makes me smile whenever I see it is the group of guys coming around the corner which is highly reminiscent of a scene from Reservoir Dogs. Because the males are usually in groups of 5-10, are all wearing their plain black suits with crisp white shirts and seem to walk unnaturally slow, I can’t help but think of this every time I see them walking down the street towards me. One day I will work up the nerve to snap a pic of this.
September 11, 2009
When I first came to Tajikistan, I had this vision of fully immersing myself within the culture so that I would ‘really learn something’ and go through this personal transformation. And in my first few weeks here I expressed how I didn’t want to be one of those people who only hangs out with other expats and lives a Canadian life, just transplanted to a different environment. Two months later and I feel like I have become exactly the person I was trying to avoid; All of the people I hang out with here are expats. The things I do outside of work seem to lack any influence of Tajik culture and the things I do at work are the same that I would have done in Toronto. The food I cook here is the food I would at home in Canada (well – not entirely – I’d like to think I’m a better chef at home where I have four burners, a proper oven and a Loblaws around the corner). The conversations I have here are the same as the ones that I would normally have with friends over a pint on a patio. So, in coming to terms with my Canadian-transplanted-in-Tajikistan way of living, I have been forced to reassess what exactly I defined as ‘cultural immersion’ in the first place, how was I expecting to know when I had achieved it and how do I define these things now?
I have learned that cutting myself off from Canada and the Western-world cold-turkey was an unrealistic goal. When being faced with a constant feeling of unfamiliarity with everything – people, food, customs, language, environment – it only makes sense to want to seek out familiar things, comfortable things. But now that I have settled down and am comfortable with my surroundings, there really is no excuse for continuing to hide away in this cocoon of familiarity. This doesn’t necessarily mean a complete life change, but at least a little effort to shake things up a bit. Indeed, I have found myself stuck in a routine-rut – somewhere I also often myself in Canada and I’m learning that I really need to make a greater effort to jolt myself out of these.
Right now, I am particularly alarmed by the fact that I rarely converse with people from Tajikistan unless they can speak English (perhaps not so unreasonable given that my Tajik is still horrible and my Shugni and Russian are non existent). And even with the few Tajik people I do converse with, I rarely probe them to get to know how they feel about life in Tajikstan. One reason for this is the fear I still have about being too invasive – As a stranger and a foreigner, will I offend people when I ask them about why they are so fond to reminisce about the Soviet era? Am I being too personal when I ask what their experiences were like during the civil war? Their thoughts on Tajikistan as a one of the world’s poorest countries and how this affects them? Or how people in the community feel about subjects like relationships, homosexuality, divorce…couple this fear with my naturally shy and introverted nature and I guess it’s no surprise haven’t really talked with anyone.
Another reason I’ve found it so difficult to ‘integrate’ is because there are no obvious venues at which I can do so. There are no local or national teams for whom people flock to the nearest watering hole to cheer on. There are no watering holes of any sort, period. There are no coffee shops. No community centres (that I’ve found). So I am stuck questioning: Where people go to meet one another – Where do they go for social interaction? I suppose there are a plethora of people in the park, but as I have learned on a few occasions, those most likely to approach me there are the…interesting…ones (Though I did get a free, however revolting, ice-cream out of one of these interactions).
Regardless of whether my lack of community involvement is due to my own fears and insecurities or because I just don’t know where to find people, I do know that at this point I am feeling unfulfilled, and that I want to experience and learn more. I want to learn about how families interact and operate, what their houses are like, what their lives are like, how they entertain themselves, what they value and what they reject. I’m also curious about simple things like how they cook and what chores they do. Basically understanding a day in the life of a Tajik person. I want to have people here to keep in touch with when I leave. And I know I’m not going to be able to accomplish any of this from the comfort of my own couch.
I have also realized that this whole immersion thing is not an all or nothing topic – I don’t have to completely shut of my Canadian side in order to ‘be successful’ (whatever that means) at developing my Tajik side. I think that finding the appropriate balance or an ‘acceptable’ level of involvement is not something I can pre-plan and is something I’m just going to have to feel out as I go – another challenge that I’ve been dealing with a lot here: Tajikistan is not a great place for planning in advance and is definitely forcing me to grow in the ‘go with the flow’ department.
August 28, 2009
I have become much less introspective since I have adapted and normalized here. Because I’m not feeling myself challenged on a daily basis I have found it all too easy to slip into this state of acceptance, void of critical or reflective thought. In Canada, I generally avoid self-reflection as it often leads to self-criticizing more than anything else. I have found myself back in this state again despite my best intentions to force myself into facing my own thoughts and feelings – both about myself and the world that I am living in. So, the next couple of blog entries will be dedicated to some of the things that I have noticed or have briefly made their way through my brain in the past few weeks. I’ll break them up in to ‘reflection on Tajikistan’ and ‘self reflection’ so that both you and I don’t become overwhelmed.
Reflections about Tajikistan
One obvious trait the people of Tajikistan have demonstrated is a strong sense of community (versus the very individualistic nature of North America). While in my first days at work I felt like it was going to be very independent – everyone seems to be responsible for their own cog in the overall machine with little collaborative or group work, a mentality I feel has been left over from the Soviet era – I quickly learned that this is where focusing on “me” and “I” and “my” stopped. It seems that in most other respects, people are concerned with the “us” and “our”. Within the professional environment, work has primarily been independent but when it comes to more social functions, such as tea, lunch and snacks (essentially food), it is definitely a group affair. Every morning and some afternoons, we have choy, which is made by the pot to accommodate the five people in my office and served with a variety of cookies, chocolates and fruit from someone’s garden. Often in the afternoon, someone will disappear for a few minutes only to return with a watermelon or bag of cookies for the office. These types of experiences are totally different from my typical morning and afternoon tea/coffee where I would go to the nearest Tim Horton’s to pick up a beverage and muffin for myself, rarely asking if anyone else wanted anything, and never just bringing something back for everyone. Indeed, I felt like quite the ass pulling out my own ziplock bag of cookies or raisins and nuts with no intention of sharing only to realize how communal everything else is. In a personal context, everyone seems to be looking out for everyone else: children and grand-children will move to different cities or villages to take care of their elders. The elders will gladly take care of and take in the grandchildren as the parents head to work without the option of day cares. And I have yet to see a homeless person in Khorog – not because there is not poverty and hardship here, but presumably because families, friends and neighbours care too much to let others live on the street and beg. I’ve also witnessed this generosity extend beyond co-workers, family and friends and be extended to us as complete strangers. In many of the smaller villages, people are always (enthusiastically) offering fruit off their trees, bread and treats from their pantries, a portion of their dinner and a pot of choy regardless of the inconvenience or burden it may be for them. It’s just such a giving culture here; I cannot even imagine what they must think when they visit developed countries with a ‘me, myself and I’ mentality where we rarely go out of our way to say hello to others, let alone help anyone else out. In a way, it makes me feel a little bit ashamed and somewhat embarrassed. Just to go off on a random tangent – A woman in my office once spent a year in the States studying education and has talked about how she loves the clean and organized grocery stores and Walmart that are open 24/7. She is embarrassed when foreigners come to Khorog and must sort through various vendors who are vying for your business and buy everything from giant bulk bags that sit on the floor. This is not something I have an issue with here – in fact I quite enjoy the experience of wandering through the outdoor market, navigating the busy crowds, looking at the variety (or repetition) of things that people have to offer. And now that I am starting to learn who has the best of what and who has what special and unique items (like good cheese, olive oil, soy sauce, chips), my shopping trips are significantly less hectic then they were in the beginning.
To get back on track…
Despite the strong sense of community here I have also noticed a very prominent division on the streets. I will often see groups of people hanging around together, but only recently paid enough attention to realize that these are generally all female or all male gatherings. When going to the park here, I always get a strong sense of family and community, but when I look closer, I realize it’s usually all mothers or all fathers with their children. Rarely have I seen the full mother/father/child combination all together (there are some people who would bust me about subscribing to a ‘hegemonic family image’ or ‘heteronormity in this statement, but really, in Tajikistain, this is the way it is). Come to think of it, I never really see husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends out in the street together. This divide extends to more formal social gatherings, such as weddings. I am generalizing from my one and only wedding experience here, but it was commonly understood that people would divide to sit at separate male and female tables. I can only image the scandal surrounding my co-ed table. I will have to investigate this further.
One thing I have been struggling with is what a developing country ‘should’ look like. My previous perception was obviously tainted by too many WorldVision commercials featuring orphaned and starving children and communities depicted as disease ridden, poor, uneducated, depressed, unproductive and hopeless. While I won’t deny that these places do exist, it is not a particularly accurate depiction of what is going on in Tajikistan. In Tajikistan people have an amazingly high rate of literacy (nearly 100%); people attend universities (quite a few of the 20-something year olds I have talked to in both the town and in villages talk/boast about returning to University in Khorog or Dushanbe in the fall) and have ‘professional’ jobs (granted, these are generally quite low paying) to which they wear ultra-fashionable accessories/clothes; they have food on the table and stable roofs over their heads which usually also house many modern amenities; they have strong family bonds and are generally happy. I must point out, this is primarily based on what I have seen in Dushanbe and Khorog, two ‘urban’ centres. But even from what I have seen in villages, life here is better classified as rustic or simple than impoverished. I have spent a lot of time questioning what I am doing here –Am I really contributing to development when they already seemed to be…well…developed? But I am starting to think that development isn’t always performed in places where the poverty is blatantly obvious, but is also necessary in places such as Tajikistan, where basic foundations for health, education, the economy, the environment, etc. are in place but need a little help in terms of capacity building.
August 26, 2009
I had the opportunity to experience my first Pamiri wedding on the weekend – and it seems like it’s my kind of wedding: A three hour maximum and a cap on the guest list (both by law here), minimal decorations, a ton of food waiting for you as you sit down, minimal speeches and maximal dancing. Because I attended this wedding with people from my work and was a last minute invitee, thus felt a bit like a wedding crasher, I was a little bit very self-conscious about making any faux-pas at the table or on the dance floor. However, I was relieved to see that customs are very much like at home and was actually complimented quite a bit on my Pamiri dancing by my colleagues as I busted a move with the Deputy Director of my organization on the dance floor. The three hours was a nice mix of eating, dancing and resting for speeches. The bride was traditionally dressed in red and remained veiled for the duration of the celebration. Neither her nor the groom ate anything or took to the dance floor, and aside from the procession of dancing, drumming and cheers that proceeded them in and out of the reception, they essentially sat as if on display for the entire three hours.
- The spread
- More dancing
- Saidsho, Farruck and me
- Some of my colleagues
- The bride and groom
I also had the opportunity to do some more camping on the weekend. After getting a bit of a late start to find ride, six of us crammed into the back of a mini-bus and took off for about 45 minutes South of Khorog. Upon arriving, we climbed up steep mountain terrain between villages and back down into a valley and then back up to high pastures. It was an amazing view sitting on the side of a mountain right on the border with the valleys extending away from us in multiple directions. Unfortunately, we became a little bit too enthusiastic in our climbing (as you will see from my pictures) and trekked into terrain that was very steep and highly unstable – a member of our group tumbled about 20m down the side of the mountain ultimately breaking his wrist and ending up quite battered and bruised. We were lucky it wasn’t worse, but this whole experience has been a good reminder that I am not invincible here and that I shouldn’t be so stupid in the future. The farmers from this village played an integral part in helping our friend going as far as to run up the mountain (no easy feat – I was exhausted just going up twice) with genuine concern for our friend’s well-being.
Aside from this unfortunate incident, the rest of stay was pleasant. Village people, amongst whom we seemed to be famous (or infamous) from the day’s prior excitement, were extremely hospitable and curious, and joined us on the high pasture to keep us company, encourage us to come stay in their warm houses and bring us loads of apples, apricots and kefir for breakfast. We learned more about the farming practice and how men from the village would come to collect hay from these pastures in 40-50lbs bundles, carry them down on their back and then repeat, up to 20 times a day! We were also fortunate enough to catch the tail end of the meteor shower that’s been happening since the end of July and see a plethora of satellites orbiting overhead. If lying on the beach at the cottage is the ultimate place to be watching starry sky, lying on the top of a mountain pasture is definitely a close second.
As per usual, there are many more pictures up on Flickr at: