Thoughts and Observations of my experience


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. 

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? 

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. 

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. 

Nurek Dam
The Teahouse in Dangara.
This is one wall in one of the banquet rooms in the teahouse in Dangara.
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!
Enjoying the city.

ELF Adventure # 14 April 19-22, 2018

First Flights and Gate Jumpers April 20-22? 


What do you get when you put seven Tajik English teachers and two English Language Fellows, or ELFs together for a weekend? Of course, you get lots of laughter and loads of fun! My ELF buddy, Lynette, and I had the pleasure of herding seven teachers from Dushanbe to Almaty, Kazakhstan for a two-day conference last month. One teacher had never flown on a plane before, and she, along with a couple of others, had never left the country. The three completely smooth flights were a great introduction to flying for our novice. She was delightfully excited the whole time. 


We set out early on a Thursday morning. You would think that getting to a city in another Central Asian country would be easy, but why? All three of the regional airlines have direct flights to Almaty, Kazakhstan every day except Thursday, the day of our flights, so we got to visit Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, for ten hours. We could have rented a van to drive us to Almaty in four hours, but the embassy didn’t want that responsibility. 


Bishkek, our first stop, looked very much like parts of Dushanbe architecturally, except that Dushanbe is in a greater state of rebuilding; I call it destructive reconstructivist city planning! In the center of Dushanbe every city block has a building being torn down or built up, and streets being ripped up or repaved, again. It is a great way to keep people employed. 


Bishkek, on the other hand, was filled with blah grey four-story Soviet buildings and very few skyscrapers (taller than ten stories) were visible, unlike Dushanbe. Beyond the architecture were the people, who looked noticeably different. Ethnically, they were the same delightful mix of east and west that has become so familiar in Dushanbe. The big, shocking differences were all about clothing. There were NO “national dresses,” very few head scarves on the women, and few men were wearing neckties either. I even saw ripped jeans and pink hair on one 20-something young woman. It was a shock to be in the same region and see such a difference. 


We managed to see a bit of the city, eat an American-esque lunch with REAL coffee, buy some souvenirs, and see the changing of the guard, who happen to be guarding a flag up a pretty tall flagpole, before heading back to the airport. Because of traffic our second check-in of the day was hurried enough that we managed to leave two tickets at the check-in counter. Luckily they were still there when we rushed back to retrieve them. Lynette and I constantly were doing checks—all teachers, all passports, all tickets—and it was like being on a Girl Scout outing, except these adults seemed to have no intention of staying close to their fearless leaders. By the time we got to the hotel in Almaty at 10 p.m., we were pooped and decided to skip dinner. 


Almaty was another step into modernity. The first sign was all the car dealerships on the road from the airport. And there were all sorts of signs in English advertising things I was familiar with like KFC, STARBUCKS and BURGER KING. The buildings were slicker and the streets had a faster and more western feel. It was a culture-shocking sort of transition from Dushanbe to Almaty. 


Late the next day, after housekeeping had straightened up the rooms, we were reminded that our novice travelers were also English language learners who had failed to read the mini-bar warning sign, and had eaten up a good bit of their per diem allowances for dinners. They’ll never do that again, for sure. The conference went well, all the equipment was there and ready to use, electricity worked, and we had internet connectivity. 


On the second day we were taken on a field trip to a famous mountain ski resort within city limits. Did I say Gate Jumping? We all had to get tickets to take the tram and gondolas up to the top. It was broken into three stages and you needed the ticket for each stage going up and for each stage going down. Everyone was clearly informed about NOT LOSING THE TICKET, and that the last gondola down was at 4:30. What we weren’t told in advance was that it would be cold and we would need warm clothing for this afternoon adventure. One of our more chivalrous guys gave his coat to one of the women in our group, and when it was time to come down he not only didn’t have his ticket, he didn’t have his passport or any money either. So, the story goes, after arguing with the gatekeeper, he did what any self-respecting Tajik man would do, he jumped the gate. The problem this created was that he had broken a rule, perhaps a law, in a foreign country, and he had no way to prove he was legally there because his passport, by that time, was already back in the hotel in his coat. From this point, the handling of the crisis went from bad to really bad because the conference coordinators hadn’t prepared for this possibility. The happy ending is that he was rescued with the help of a big cash payment for which I will never be reimbursed and he safely returned to Tajikistan with us. Needless to say, I was exhausted after four days and was glad to say farewell at the airport here. 


Elf Adventure # 13 March 26, 2018

The Ides of March and St. Patrick’s Day have nothing on March in Tajikistan!


March is an extremely significant month in Tajikistan, and for many reasons that westerners would hardly imagine. To begin with, March 1st is technically the first day of spring here and no amount of science or astronomical explanation with drawings and labels and dates could change a single mind among students at the university. The “Happy Spring” greetings continued all day!


It follows that since March 1st is the first day of spring, it is also the day for women to officially trade their drab winter clothes for the bright, colorful clothing called “our National Dress” which is called Atlas or Chakan!  One of the joys of winter clothing that will be lost by this change is the subversive freedom allowed the young co-eds who wear knee-length, tight skirts and sweaters and all sorts of western style clothing. Jeans are only allowed during testing times and neckties seem to be required of the young men all the time, but they still push the limits. I can’t decide if the “fashion police” were allowing the winter clothing because there were too many young women dressing out of uniform or because they appreciate that a cultural change is coming via clothing.


Women are now wearing bright, colorful clothing, but some still wear fake fur vests over these delightfully fun outfits. Unfortunately, the warm weather makes it a terrible time to wear a fur coat, even a fake one. Sorry to say that I probably won’t bring one home to wear, but I might bring one of the pretty “national dress” outfits.


March 8th, the next big event of the month, is International Women’s and Mother’s day and they really celebrate it here. I couldn’t convince anyone that women and their accomplishments should be celebrated every day, but at least they make a big deal of women one day each year. In one of the classes I team taught in this month, I challenged the students to find five Tajik women who have made significant contributions to the world or their country. They came up with an athlete, a couple of musicians, and a dancer. I came up with a human rights activist who won The International Women of Courage Award in 2014. Sadly but not surprisingly, none of the students, and not even the teacher, had heard of her.


March 8th was a school day and at the start of the 11 a.m. hour one of the young male teachers found me and literally dragged me down the hall to his room to be one of the honored guests for a small but well-rehearsed, “Ode to Mothers and Women!” concert performance. I have attached a video to show some of the performances. Later, at about 1 p.m. there was another celebration for women and mothers that was something like the morning one, but in a bigger room. I got there late, but it was the same kind of variety show performance as in the morning. It was really delightful to be invited to these events. Mother's DayMother's Day


The next and final big festival event of the month is called Navruz here. It is celebrated in many countries and the spelling changes depending on where you are. Last year at this time, I went to a Navruz celebration at URI which was pretty exciting because I had never previously heard of it and I was coming here just a few months after that celebration. It has been classified by the UN as a World Cultural Heritage event in 12 countries. Read this explanation about the holiday from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Tajikistan.



I learned about a big cultural festival happening on March 17th at the Botanical Garden down the street only that morning, but I had the afternoon free, so it worked out great.  One of the teachers I work with and Tim and I went there and had lots of fun. It was a festival to celebrate the beginning of the Navruz holiday season which begins on the 17th (for some) and continues for the rest of the month, they say. Officially it begins on the 21st and continues to the 25th. Anyhow, the teacher we went with is now one of my cookbook buddies and we had loads of fun tasting food and having Tim photograph food. She loved being with us foreign celebrities who were interviewed by two different TV stations and who got her a free lunch because everyone wanted us to try the food.


Since then we have gone to another festival at my university on the 20th, and to one at a big park up the street on the 21st. Both were amazingly beautiful events with lots of music and dance. At the university, they even got me to dance! One of the customs of this holiday is to buy and wear a new National Dress outfit. I felt a lot of pressure to get something appropriate to wear, but failed. However, one of the clerks got me a jacket that has a name I do not know. She guessed perfectly at the size and colors. It was a hit with all the students.


Yesterday we went to Tahmina’s house for a meal on the final day of the holiday. It was wonderful to spend the day with her and her children. 


On Monday the 26th, we head north for a week of teaching different groups of teachers. It will be exciting, and even without any landslides or avalanches on the way, it will be a thrilling five-hour drive.



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