Goodbye Tajikistan

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Well, after 10 weeks on the ground, I am now making my final preparations to leave Tajikistan. It has been a strange and wonderful time, an experience that I will never forget. Tajikistan doesn’t necessarily demand your attention, even struggles to take hold of you on the first (or second) glance, but it will eventually sneak its way into your heart.

This country has tested every ounce of my patience and made me curse its needlessly bureaucratic ways; starved me until I was weak and then fattened me up with greasy, deep fried foods and overly sugary chocolates and sweets; robbed me of electricity and made me freeze through dark, dark nights and long, crisp days; run circles around me with its cunning, multilingual ways; sometimes bored me to death and made me wish for Sunday to finally end; twisted my ankles on dark walks home; made me drink bad Russian beer and sugared Nescafe (it’s not really coffee!); robbed me of wine that does not resemble old vinegar; irritated me with spitting in the streets and constantly ringing cell phones; and pushed my limits of sanity with all of the loud horns, crazy drivers, and cramped shared taxis.

But, Tajikistan can surprise you. I will miss the way that everyone ceremoniously prepares tea and hands it to you with their hand over their heart. I will miss the colorful markets and how old ladies will knock you over as they’re running through the narrow aisles. I will miss living in a country where history is measured in 1000’s of years instead of 100’s. I will really miss how everything is referred to as ‘national’ (this is our national teapot, national dish, national soup, national mattress, national bed; national dress; national fruit; national cake, national hat….) I will miss how most people speak a minimum of three languages, none of which I managed to pick up in my time here. And, even though eating was a constant stress, I think that I may even miss all of the foods that revolved around sheep fat.

Tajikistan is definitely the most complex place I’ve ever visited. There is so much to learn and explore and I hope to keep reading and learning about it when I return home.

Thank you everyone for your support during this fellowship. Thank you for letting me share some of the amazing experiences and stories – I hope that I have inspired some of you to keep learning about this region.

Signing out……

December 18, 2008 at 10:53 am Leave a comment

Not Exactly Martha Stewart

I had been planning for today’s lasagna lunch since the second week of my fellowship when one my colleagues asked if I could make his favorite dish from the U.S. How could I say no? This man had picked me up at the border, arranged my housing, and even helped me secure a SIM card and cell phone, among countless of other tasks. Lasagna was the least I could do, right? Right? In the end the lasagna required more than 10 trips to various stores and the efforts of approximately 12 people, in three countries.

When I made the commitment, I did not understand how difficult it would be to find the necessary ingredients. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find fresh mozzarella or ricotta cheese – I couldn’t find cheese, period. After many rounds through the market and trips to supposedly ‘Western-style’ stores, I came to the harsh realization that this dish was going to require some serious effort.

Luckily, I managed to secure some guests during my fellowship: I asked Ryan to bring me a box of lasagna noodles and Jenny, who was visiting from Kiva, to bring along a bottle of Kraft parmesan – the kind that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. While in Uzbekistan, I scored a can of tomato paste and a packet of dried tomato sauce, which would replace the non-existent basil and oregano – all they have here is cilantro. I had planned to make my own ricotta, arguably lasagna’s key ingredient, but without a thermometer or buttermilk I was forced to give up on that plan as well.

So, as you can imagine, I was feeling pretty pessimistic about my opportunities for success. I stopped trying to find ingredients and started planning excuses to weasel out of the obligation. Feeling guilty, I decided to give it one last shot and wandered into a market not far from my office. I could almost hear the heavenly choir pouring down as my eyes rested upon a pile of ground beef (ground beef!) and two blocks of cheese: gouda and edam! It wasn’t exactly mozzarella and ricotta, but it wasn’t the Tajik salty soft cheese either.

Unfortunately, Western conveniences do not come cheaply and I only had enough money in my wallet to purchase the cheese. I also figured that, if I had been forced to eat meat for 10 weeks, it wouldn’t hurt them to eat vegetarian food for once. Proud and excited, I headed home to prepare the sauce and fixins…..that’s when it really got interesting.

1. I have one electric burner and no stove, which makes it pretty tricky to bake lasagna. It took a few tries, but I finally found someone to bring their stove, as well as a pan, into the office today (it’s not too big, don’t worry).

2. I don’t have a can opener, so I had to borrow one from my neighbor. After several minutes trying to figure out how to use it, I had to walk back across the hall, with my tail between my legs and ask for help. It’s never very empowering to ask for help in using a can opener. She clearly felt bad for me because, five minutes later, she sent her daughter over with a bowl of soup and some chocolates.

3. When I got to work this morning, my coworker asked what kind of meat would be in the lasagna. I explained that I had run out of money while shopping and had been unable to purchase the ground beef . Before I knew it, all of the men in my office had plopped down 5 somoni each (enough to cover the cost of the meat), saying “we want meat”. So, I ran back out to the store.

4. A coworker then arranged for the driver to take me home so that I could pick up the rest of the ingredients and cook the beef on my stove top. When I got there, the electricity was off – of course.

5. I headed back to the office to set up the stove and start baking the ground beef. Thank God that I made an obnoxious quantity of sauce the night before and thank God they made me go buy meat because the pan that my colleague had lent me was huge!

6. I got the lasagna into the oven at 11:20, which gave it just enough time to bake before the electricity went off at noon.

Well, somehow my ‘thank-you’ present for one of my colleagues turned into a celebration for the whole office. Everyone came – I ended up making lunch for over 30 people. Sadly, I didn’t get to take a picture of the final product because I got shoved out of the way so that someone else could serve it. But it was absolutely beautiful….and yummy! It didn’t taste exactly like lasagna, more like fancy cheeseburger lasagna, but it was wonderful! Everyone, including myself, had such a good time sitting around, eating, and chatting. Sitting there, looking out at my coworkers who I would soon say goodbye to, I started to fight back tears. Tomorrow is my going away party – but it couldn’t possibly be better than today’s event!

December 17, 2008 at 11:34 am 2 comments

My Uzbek Holiday

After spending eight weeks by myself in Tajikistan, you can imagine how eager I was to have Ryan visit, even if it was only for ten days.  It was so good to have him here, even though he refused to eat anything with lamb fat in it! There isn’t too much to do in Khujand, but it did serve as a good rest after his long flight.  Plus, I got to take advantage of all the little treats he brought me, mainly cribbage, coffee, and chocolate!

Our trip into Uzbekistan turned out to be a little more exciting than we had anticipated. We originally planned to avoid the mountains by taking the long way around to Samarqand, but we couldn’t turn down a ride to Penjikent, Tajikistan. This required going over the mountains, but it was an easier trek once we got there. I won’t go into detail (I did upload some pics from the drive) but it is safe to say that none of our parents would have been to pleased with the trip.

The old mosques and mausoleums in Samarqand and Bukhara are really incredible. I was not prepared for their dominating presence and incredible beauty. My mouth dropped as we drove into the city and I glimpsed the first of the giant structures. We passed by several more on our way to the guest house…..they just kept going and the city seemed content to move around them.

We arrived into Samarqand well past lunch and were famished by the time we found a place to eat. Immediately after ordering our meals, two people at the table next to ours invited us to join in a vodka toast. One shot somehow turned into 6 or 8 and,  after a couple hours, we were feeling pretty loopy. We managed to get in at least one tourist stop before deciding to head back to a bar for dinner (it seemed like a good idea at the time). It was a long and wonderful first day in Uzbekistan.

Life in Uzbekistan is shockingly different than life in Tajikistan. It felt so much more developed and had so much more going on. While this was a nice change, the more engaging lifestyle was also overwhelming. We were constantly overwhelmed by masses of people smoking and the constant presence of alcohol. In Khujand, people pretty much leave me alone but in Uzbekistan, we were endlessly approached by people trying to practice their English – it’s nice the first few times but it gets old after you’ve heard “Hello Meester” 20 or 30 times. After two months of being surrounded by conservative dress, I was also slightly shocked by the short skirts and tight jeans that dominated the fashion scene.

Unfortunately, the trip was not all vodka and roses. Ryan suffered from food poisoning, our flight back to Tashkent turned into a nightmare, and the strict registration requirements caused more than one headache. By the time we finally arrived in Tashkent, where Ryan would depart, we were worn out shells of our former selves. Thankfully, we had the most wonderful host. Alex, a friend of our dear friend Jamie, nursed us back to health with lots of tea, good food, and hot water! We even got to lounge around and watch DVD’s – it was the perfect way to wind down the trip.

Ryan is now back in the U.S. and I am now back at my home in Tajikistan. I only have 10 more days in the country, before I head back to Alex’s oasis in Tashkent in order to prepare for my departure flight, and it is going to be a roller coaster of a time. I feel so alive and inspired by the process that I’ve been experiencing for the past 9 weeks, but my body and mind are also challenged by the electricity cuts and constant cold. I am anxious to see all of my friends and family, but I am scared to return to the stress of my way-too-busy life. I am excited to be going home but I will really miss this country – it wasn’t always the most entertaining or friendly place, but it has managed to work its way into my heart.

Click Here are some pics from the trip

Or Click Here for the slideshow version

December 10, 2008 at 8:24 am 2 comments

My week in southern Tajikistan

I was able to break out of Khujand last week for a trip to the southern part of Tajikistan, in order to meet with branches and clients in Dushanbe (the capitol) and Sharituz.  It was such a good trip!  The weather was gorgeous, I got to go sightseeing, and I even got to be an expat for an hour and a half, as I indulged in a glorious cup of Starbucks coffee….real coffee, not Nescafe!

Here are some brief stories from my trip, mostly to provide some context for the pictures I just uploaded to Flickr.

Dushanbe

Dushanbe was not what I expected for a capitol city and certainly not what I expected after 2 months of living in the north.  It had wide, tree-lined streets; international food (which I did not get to eat); and bars!  Contrary to the more shut-in culture of Khujand, people in Dushanbe appear to go out at night and on the weekends.  I wish I had had more time to explore the city, but I was limited to several days of work and one afternoon of walking around.  Since the weather was too nice to pass up, I breezed through the city’s Museum of Antiquities, where I shot a picture of Central Asia’s largest remaining buddha.  This was yet another reminder of how rich and diverse this country’s long history really is.

Sharituz

After a delay of more than 3 hours and a stop at a roadside mosque for my driving companions to make evening prayers, we finally left for Sharituz just before sunset on Wednesday. I was slightly disappointed because I had really wanted to see the countryside before dark, but seeing the sun go down over the golden mountains was worth the wait.  Around an hour into the drive, we came across our only checkpoint on the road, where our tiny Russian car was dwarfed by the surrounding trucks.  My coworker pointed out that they were Afghani trucks bringing building materials into Tajikistan.

We arrived just in time for a late dinner at our home for the next few days: the UNDP Guest House, which is the only place that you can stay in the region.  It was a cozy hostel and, since I was the only female there, I got my own room.  It was run-down and simple, but I loved it – mostly because I got to sleep in a bed for the first time since arriving in this country (my flat only has a weird pull-out couch).

I loved my three days in Sharituz.  It was so warm that I didn’t need to wear long underwear or my fleece and we got to eat lunch outside on the traditional Tajik ‘cots’.  The pace of life is so much slower there, with much time dedicated to sipping tea in rose-filled courtyards.  I was completely smitten.

The best part about my time in Sharituz was getting to see an old mosque (really old!) and the 44 Springs.  Legend has it that the historic mosque was built by birds.  From the road, it looks like just another rural mosque but it is a surprisingly beautiful stone structure that is slowly being repaired.  The 44 natural springs created a literal oasis in the midst of the very arid southern region.  It is popular with the locals as a cool respite from the strong summer heat, but they just hang out there, they don’t go swimming.  I’m not even sure that you could go swimming because the water is completely filled with fish – I’ve never seen anything like it, the water was black with fish.

Lunch with Bashir’s Uncle

OK, so this actually happened right before my trip, but I uploaded the pictures at the same time.  Bashir is one of my coworkers and he has been an amazing host.  He has taken me out on several field trips and invited me over to his flat for meals on many occasions.  And right before I left, he took me and a visiting Kiva employee out to visit the old cotton cooperative offices.  On our way back into town we stopped at his uncle’s home for an impromptu lunch and several shots of cognac.  As you can see from the pictures, we have our legs huddled under the table cloths, in order to take advantage of the coal heater that is underneath the table!

Again: here is the link for the pictures.

FYI: Ryan arrives in Tajikistan tomorrow!  We will spend a few days in Khujand and then head off for some travel in Uzbekistan.

November 25, 2008 at 9:58 am Leave a comment

Sometimes the Most “Boring” Client is Really the Most Interesting

In the past week I have met with almost 50 clients, which is way more than I met in the previous six weeks combined. I should feel inspired and excited by that accomplishment, but I mostly feel tired and battered. That’s because all of the clients I met with were BORING! I’m not exaggerating – I didn’t have one interesting interview. At least, that’s what I thought in the days surrounding the visits….

When I meet with clients, I ask a bunch of questions about their business, family, and personal history in order to get a better understanding of the benefit they have experienced from working with a microfinance organization. The clients in and around my home base of Khujand haven’t exactly talked my ear off, but they’ve been surprisingly open and forthcoming with their responses. So when I took a week to meet with clients in the southern part of the country, I was shocked by their consistently brief and reticent responses. Here is a sample interview from the past week:

Me: Why did you decide to start your business?

Client: Because I wanted to.

Me: Why did you decide, after 9 years of owning your business, to apply for your first loan last year? Client: Because.

Me: What has been the impact of the loan on your business?

Client: It’s been good

Me: Can you provide any specific examples?

Client: No

Me: Do you have any goals for the next few years, for your business or family?

Client: No

It was the same thing, client after client. I wanted to scream – didn’t anybody have a wedding to pay for; a child to send to college; or a satellite dish to buy (all very typical responses to the goals question)? I pulled out every trick in the bag: rephrasing my questions; asking follow-up questions, smiling more; and talking about their family. But, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get anything out of these clients. We tried different communities, different branches, different translators and still nothing….the clients simply would not talk.

My first reaction was to chalk it up to the fact that microfinance isn’t always ‘sexy’. It isn’t always the glamorous success story that, as a lender, you hope to hear. My second thought was that this part of the country was simply more religious and therefor more reserved. But, I wasn’t satisfied with either of these explanations and decided to ask for some help from my IMON coworkers.

It turns out that the “boring clients” are a complex and emotional consequence of Tajikistan’s civil war, which erupted in 1992, just after the country had gained its independence from the U.S.S.R., and lasted until around 1997. The violence took up to 50,000 lives and resulted in widespread and devastating food shortages. While the northern cities were able to avoid most of the conflict and suffering, it was a different story in the communities I visited around Dushanbe and Sharituz. In these towns, up to 30-40% of the women are war widows; almost one hundred thousand people fled to neighboring Afghanistan; entire communities were burnt to the ground or otherwise destroyed; and most people lost their job or simply stopped getting paid. That’s why microfinance was so necessary and therefor so successful in Tajikistan. It helped individuals and communities create their own jobs and futures after the war.

When I went back through my interview notes, signs of the war and the ensuing reconstruction were glaringly obvious. I realized that most (indeed, almost all) of the clients had had some sort of career before starting their business: they were nurses, teachers, managers, government employees, factory workers, on and on. And they all said the same thing when I asked why they had started the business: “because I lost my job”. I also noticed that many of the women I interviewed were widows. Even my colleagues from IMON filled in part of the big picture. I had two translators: one to translate from English to Tajik and the other to translate from Tajik to Uzbek – because the English translator missed out on learning Uzbek when he fled to Afghanistan.

Even during our conversations, it was clear that the entrepreneurs had started their businesses in order to get back on their feet after the civil war, but I still couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t talk. I wasn’t asking questions about their deceased husbands or their burned down towns or their abandoned factories – I knew well enough to stay away from all of that. No, I was just asking questions about their current successes and their future goals – why wouldn’t they want to talk about that?

Because, I couldn’t join them for a cup of tea.

Tea is an integral part of the Tajik culture – we have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. It is the first thing you are offered when you enter someone’s home and, as an honored guest, your hosts will never allow you to pour it yourself. Most of the clients I meet with ask me to stay after the interview in order to have tea, even if I am meeting with them at the very busy central markets. This is such an open and giving culture that it feels very natural to accept the invitation and focus on issues other than work but, when I am representing Kiva, I always decline the offer. First off, my MFI has strict rules about never accepting gifts from a client. And secondly, even though I have all the time in the world to sit with clients, I am always joined by a translator and loan officer who have very busy schedules.

So it wasn’t that my clients wouldn’t talk, it’s that they wouldn’t talk right away. Unfortunately, you can’t always get the interesting story in a 15 minute interview and you don’t always have time for a cup of tea. And, when you have a business history that includes death, war, and struggle, you’re not always interested in ‘cutting to the chase’ and explaining how it’s all connected.

I’ve learned a lot of things during 7 weeks in Tajikistan, mostly that this country is way more interesting than it often appears on the surface. The people are a complex mix of religions, languages, experiences, and dreams for the future. And the more work you put into uncovering these complexities, the more you are rewarded. I’ve learned to slow down when I am at work and when I am communicating. And I’ve learned to establish more realistic expectations about success, because sometimes it’s less about the answers and more about the process of getting there. To truly succeed in understanding Tajikistan and the people who live here, you must find that balance – as a Kiva Fellow and even as a Kiva lender.

November 25, 2008 at 6:47 am 1 comment

A Tajik Wedding

Most of you probably already know this, but I will start this posting with a disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of weddings. I’m not against the concept of weddings, I just don’t like how much stress and money goes into preparing what should be one of the happier moments of your life. And, unfortunately, the extravagance that accompanies most weddings in the U.S. is not a foreign concept here in Tajikistan. Up until last summer, the happy couple would be expected to throw an exuberant, multi-day affair with 500-1000 of their closest friends.

I know what you’re thinking: you don’t even know 500-1000 people, right? Well, that’s because you’re not thinking hard enough….you’re forgetting that you need to invite your brother’s coworkers and your neighbor’s aunt. In addition to feeding all of them, you would be expected to provide housing and cover travel expenses for those who were visiting from out of town. Families have gone into debt, or sent their men off to work in Russia, just to pay for their children’s weddings.

I will admit, 500-1000 people is over the top, no matter what country you’re from. But what are you going to do, make it illegal? Well, that’s what the President of Tajikistan decided to do last summer. He set a cap of 150 people for all wedding celebrations (and funerals….because, yes, they can be equally as debt-inspiring). Considering these recent constraints, I was feeling pretty flattered to be invited to my first Tajik wedding.

wedding dinnerOverall, it was a pretty amazing event. The bride and groom were welcomed by loud horns and drums; the guests were fed approximately 8-10 plates of food each (notice how the plates are stacked on top of one another in the pic); the families danced for several hours straight; and the bride spent the entire evening bowing in gratitude to the guests. As always, everyone was a gracious host to me: I was invited to sit at the head table, was welcomed by many of the families’ elders; and learned how to dance. Despite my general disdain for weddings, I had a great time.

Although, in the event that you one day find yourself at a Tajik wedding, I will offer some sage advice…..if someone asks if you would like to congratulate the bride, kindly decline. Otherwise, you will find yourself standing on a podium, with a microphone in hand, making a speech for the new couple, whose names you do not know.

Here’s a short video of the horns, dancers, and bowing bride:

 

November 11, 2008 at 10:55 am 2 comments

Celebrating the Election in Tajikistan

Last night, as I was crawling into bed, I felt just like I did on Christmas Eve when I was a child.  I felt a mix of excitement, apprehension (what if Santa didn’t come?), and sheer energy coursing through my veins.  But last night I was also feeling really sad.  Here we were, on the edge of something truly great, and I was not able to participate.  I kept thinking how I would be able to tell my grandkids ‘how lucky I felt to witness such an historic event but, no, I didn’t actually help make it happen’.  Of all the elections in all of the world, why did I have to miss this one?

I practically jumped out of bed when my alarm went off this morning. I was fiddling with the tv remotes before I had even fully emerged from my sleeping bag cocoon or turned the lights on.  I had already preset the station to CNN the night before so that I was able to hop right into viewing action at 6am sharp.  Voting was still taking place back in the U.S., so only a few states had been called, but it didn’t take long for the drama to begin building.

By the time I got into work it was fairly obvious that Obama would be elected.  Judging from e-mails and Facebook postings, I could tell that all of my friends and family were caught up in the excitement back home.  But all I could do was sit at my desk and watch the little states on the CNN map turn red or blue (mostly blue).  I felt so helpless and, worse, so far away.

And then it happened: McCain conceeded and Obama accepted. I read the transcripts of the speeches, browsed through pictures of the celebrations, and cursed the very very slow Tajiki internet, which would not allow me to watch any videos.  I am such a cheeseball – tears were running down my cheeks.  Regardless of what you believe or who you voted for, you must realize the importance of this day and what it stands for, right?

Anyway, this posting isn’t supposed to be about me or my political leanings.  It’s supposed to be about Tajikistan. 

After a couple hours of throwing myself a pity party, I decided to take matters into my own hands and throw a real party. I grabbed one of my co-workers and headed out in search of a cake. I bought the biggest, most chocolatey cake I could find.  And my co-worker chipped in for the RC and Orange RC (another food tradition I don’t quite appreciate here: washing down sugar with more sugar).

I went around to each office and invited all of the staff to the conference room to help celebrate.  At first, they didn’t realize what was happening and assumed that I was celebrating my birthday (they all had bets that I was turning 24 or 25 years old!).  But, once I explained that I was throwing an election party, they got even more excited.

I had a lovely little speech planned out and had arranged for one of my coworkers to translate but, before I could start, other people started making their own speeches.  Everyone wanted to express their hopes and prayers for my country.  “I hope that your country finds peace and happiness”  “I hope that the people in your country will be able to make more money”  “I hope that he will be the best president ever” and on and on.  My speech, which was mostly devised to explain that this was not meant to promote Obama but rather to more generally celebrate election day, now seemed less exciting.

I felt really blessed and surprised that everyone cared so much.  I don’t even think they cared too much about Obama specifically, they seemed to care more about what the election would mean to the people in the United States.  And, once again, I felt really privileged.  I felt the weight of what it means to be from the U.S. and the responsibility that that can bring.

But, most importantly, I no longer felt pity for myself for being here instead of back at home.

November 5, 2008 at 10:34 am 7 comments

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