Thoughts and Observations of my experience

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ELF Adventure #19 July 10, 2018


The time to be a tourist has finally begun

 

I got special permission to end my fellowship four days early, on June 24th. On the 25th, our daughter Sarah arrived and on the 27th we got in a speedy new Kiato be driven five winding hours through the mountains of Tajikistan to get to the border crossing in Panjakent, which is the closest land crossing to Samarkand, our first stop on our mini Silk Road tour which included Bukhara and Tashkent as well. Uzbekistan is HOT in the summer, and being a tourist, on foot, in heat is especially tiring. Tim took mid-day breaks to avoid the heat, but Sarah and I persevered; we tried to see everything important.  

 

I’m not sure how far into Uzbekistan Tajik territory historically existed, but the Soviet Union, in their great colonial wisdom, chose to draw border lines that would divide people to keep them from uniting in any way. So, in March of 2018, when the new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon agreed to open the border for citizens of the two countries, everyone was happy. People on both sides have relatives on the other side and now they can visit their relatives without visa hassles. 

 

Samarkand, Bukhara (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and Tashkent, to some extent, are the most famous and important Silk Road sites in the region. I am really glad to have had the opportunity to visit them. I learned several things from this trip: Central Asia was a seriously important part of this ancient trade route, the people in Samarkand, who are mostly ethnic Tajik, are a little bit more open than their Tajik cousins, and in my opinion, the osh in Dushanbe is better than the osh in Samarkand and Bukhara! In addition to this, I am glad to have spent my fellowship year in Tajikistan where I could focus on people and work and just living here. 

 

We met some really special people on this short trip, we became the stars of a Tourist Police (they really should call themselves Tourist Assistants) advertisement video which I will post as soon as it gets sent to us, we had some delicious and some not so delicious food (Sarah dubbed the week “The All Carb Diet” because we ate lots of carbs and very few vegetables at every meal, and we got to see some of the most amazing religious structures ever!  I highly recommend a visit to Uzbekistan if you ever have the chance. 

 

Here are some links that might give you more insight into the area and the mosques and mausoleums we visited:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Registan

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/uzbekistan/samarkand/attractions/shah-i-zinda/a/poi-sig/443621/357830

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gur-e-Amir

https://youtu.be/i6ZJJCNRtFU

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The three Madrassas at the Registon in Samarkand.
Part of a ceiling in a mosque in Samarkand.
Our very own twin Tourist Police officers!
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ELF Adventure # 18 May 20, 2018


The end is coming, but it will be busy.


This week is the last full week of classes and then there is a week during which students are given RATING tests. I don't know where the name came from or what the purpose is, but they happen before final exams. The grammar in these tests is one of my unfinished projects; maybe my successor will be able to convince everyone that getting the grammar right is a good idea.

 

After the rating tests, students get to have the experience of final exams that are like nothing you have ever experienced before. The month of June is the final exam month. Students have from seven to ten classes each year and they have these final exams in January and June. I know that sounds wacky, and it is wacky! Why does it take a whole month, you ask? All students take a test for each class and if they pass with a 50 or greater, they are done. If they fail with 46-49, they take it again for no cost. If they fail with less than 46, they pay about $8.00 (in U.S. value that would be over $150) to take it a second time. If either group of repeat testers fails the second time, they have to pay again to take it a third and final time. Often before the final test administration, the teacher helps the student by showing them the test. Yes, you read that correctly. Oh, and I forgot to say that before the tests are given students get a study guide that has three times the number of questions that will be on that particular test. So, if they had paid attention during the year, and they have good memories, they could just memorize everything for ten tests.

 

My year ending will be busy. This week Thursday and Friday Lynette and I (along with Tim) will finally get to go to Gharm in the center of the country. We are going for a surprise Access Program evaluation visit and for workshops. I have only heard three things about Gharm: beautiful, conservative, and the strongest Access program in the country.  I’m sure it will be interesting. Then on May 30th, I am organizing a conference here. (Thanks to RITELL for teaching me how to do that!). 

 

In mid-June I will go to a conference in northern Kazakhstan (with Tim) June 15-16. From the 20th to 22nd Lynette and I will have our last “show” in a three-day workshop for secondary teachers who teach in the Access Micro-scholarship Program. It is the U.S. government's way to get poor kids in developing countries excited about the U.S. instead of about ISIS or something negative like that. I believe it is run all over the world, but am not completely sure. Definitely a good use of diplomatic money. 

 

After our youngest daughter, Sarah, arrives on the 25th of June we will be off to Uzbekistan to see Samarkand and Bukhara, the most colorful remnant cities of Silk Road fame. When Sarah leaves, Tim and I will dash (it takes two days to make the journey safely, so there is really no dashing involved) over to the Pamir Mountains, which are nicknamed “the rooftop of the world,” for ten days of exploring, and then we’ll be DONE. 

 

I’m going to miss this place and this experience. I already know that there are too many things I haven’t done or seen to feel that I’ll be done by the end of July, but done or not I’ll be boarding a plane on July 25th. 

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Ramadan Fasting Calendar

ELF Adventure #17 May 17, 2018


Ramadan: A time of fasting

Ramadan began on Thursday, May 17th. Many but not all people will be fasting from food and liquids from about 3:30 am to 8 pm for 30 days. I have gotten a wide range of answers to my query about why people fast. Some people have told me it is to know what hunger feels like. Some have told me it is because the Koran says they must. I have had to really press people to get them to agree that one reason for fasting is to get closer to God. I know they knew that they just hadn’t ever been asked to say it in English before. Some restaurants are losing money because of Ramadan, but they must have that figured into their budget plan. People are not grouchy, as I had thought they might be based on how students acted when they arrived at school without having eaten breakfast. 

 

On a positive note, I don’t have to prepare any food or drink for the mini-conference I have organized for the last week of the month while two English Language Fellows from other Central Asian countries will be visiting. How good is that, a food- and water-free conference? 

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It really hurt for a bit.

ELF Adventure # 16 May 6, 2018


Walking is a Contact Sport

Tim and Emily and I stopped in the nearest big city on our way back to visit with a young American woman who is teaching there. We had some hotel confusion and ended up staying at a hotel that was something like having the key to a distant relative’s house while they were gone. It was clean enough, but everything looked like it had just been used that morning by someone. There were used house slippers in the room, used toothpaste tubes and opened soap, and the toilet paper holder pulled out of the wall when you tried to get some paper single-handed. In addition to that, we only had one bath towel, which looked like it had been through a shredder. Emily even had a damp towel hung over a chair in her room. My electrician brother would have laughed at the electrical work. One really funny thing was that the molding between the desk and the wall had been carefully carved out for the air conditioner cable. The only problem was that because of this the cable could not reach the outlet without an extension cord. All this fun for $15 a room!

 

The next day Emily and I took a spin around the market in her quest for some fabric. All went well at first. We got some fabric, but then the sidewalk got me. I have been saying since September when I first kissed the sidewalk that walking here is a contact sport, and this photo proves it. It really hurt for a minute or two and then with the help of a couple of bottles of chilled water (ice is rarely available here) it felt better. Lucky for me, I heal quickly, like my father. 


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It was a little chilly, but the mountains were beautiful and worth the visit.

ELF Adventure #15  May 5 & 6, 2018

 40 Virgins/Daughters/Girls


Where do you take your visiting daughter when you want her to experience the “real Tajikistan?” To Childukhtaron, of course. 

 

The Hike Tajikistan organizers planned their first overnight trip to the south while Emily was here. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience for her because she got to see more of the “real” Tajikistan. The city, of course, is real, but rural Tajikistan covers more territory than cities. Denis, the leader, had arranged some tourism before we got to our destination, which was a delightful way to break up the long drive. We first stopped at Nurek, a dam that has made a huge lake that supplies much of the water and power in this country. We were there at the height of mulberry season and there were kids everywhere trying to sell their berries. Mulberries, if you didn’t know, are very delicate berries that look like white raspberries and delicate blackberries and they are more watery than sweet. The leaves of the mulberry tree are what is fed to the caterpillars that create the cocoons that become silk. 

 

Then we stopped in Dangara, the president’s hometown and therefore the last well cared for part of the road, to see the largest teahouse in the world. This teahouse is really more like a series of banquet halls in one fancy building. I didn’t check if there was a public teahouse anywhere in the building, but my guess is that there isn’t. There is a really large “teahouse” in Dushanbe called Kohi Navruz, but until about a month ago the general public could go there only for pool, bowling, and movies. There was no tea served at the National Teahouse! More about this later. We also got a tour of Hulbuk, an ancient fortress on the Silk Road! You could tell that the guide (the chief archeologist there for decades) really loved teaching people about the fortress. 

 

We finally arrived at our lodging in a village at the base of the tall mountain with the strange rock formations called 40 virgins/daughters/girls (Tajik has one word that covers all three of these meanings) after more than 25 km on a very bumpy composite (mostly dirt, gravel and ditches) road. The mountains, the lodging, the river, and the animals made it a memorable experience that we only were able to have because of Denis, a creative young man. A Finnish doctor on our trip suggested an alternate story to the “official one,” which is that 40 young women fighting against Genghis Khan prayed to God for protection when they saw that they were going to lose. To protect them, he turned them into stones. In the proposed new version of the story, the same women prayed for help and God turned the men into stone. I like the second version better. 

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Nurek Dam
The Teahouse in Dangara.
This is one wall in one of the banquet rooms in the teahouse in Dangara.
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Holbruk view of the recreated outer walls.
Our guide at the fortress. On a hot day with a sweater and a jacket!
The 40 virgins!

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