Thoughts and Observations of my experience

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.



Our first taxi driver from the airport

ELF Adventure # 12

February 9, 2018

More interesting people you meet and places you go along the way….

On Saturday the 27th of January, Tim and I started our journey to India for a few days of exploration before the two short conferences I had to attend. Dushanbe is a tough city to fly into or out of, with most flights happening in the wee hours of the morning and connections requiring long layovers. We started early, and were able to avoid the long layover, but we had to fly to Dubai to go to Mumbai. This means that we flew 4 hours away from our destination, waited 6 hours and then took a 3-hour flight to Mumbai! It could have been a 12-hour layover, so we got lucky! On our journey here we met a couple of interesting people that I would like to tell you about. 

 The first person we met was a waitress from the Philippines in the Dubai airport. I learned in the conversation we had that she had been working in Dubai for 3 years. She had left her family and was far away for a job, not a very good job at that, but perhaps better than those of most Filipinos in Dubai. 

The second person we met was the taxi driver at the Mumbai airport. For safety’s sake, and to ensure that the driver got a fair fare, we chose a pre-paid taxi for the long ride to our hotel. We were able to talk to our driver a lot on the way and here are some of the things we learned. Our ride cost about $14.00 and his portion was about $11.00. He said he sometimes gets two fares a day at that price. His family lives in Uttar Pradesh, which is about 1000 km away, far enough that he only gets to see them about twice a year. He said that since Uber and other similar ride-hailing companies have entered the market, his business has declined. 

These two migrant workers got me thinking about migration and immigration and how hard it must be for people to make the decision to go somewhere far away because there are no jobs where they live. The Sunday morning Times of India on 1/28 had a great commentary that seemed to be written just for the mood I was in. I have attached a link here for you to read. Migration is Lifeblood of the world, only insecure nations oppose it

Gateway of India

 January 26 is Republic Day here, and as I remember from my pervious visit to India, it is a big deal. During that trip, I was in Delhi and got to enjoy the long and colorful Republic Day parade. This year, Sunday the 28th, was part of the 3-day weekend that everyone got to enjoy. We spent most of the morning at the huge structure at the harbor called the Gateway of India. The place was packed with a chaotic mass of happy Indian and (a few) foreign visitors, brightly colored clothing, lots of happy noise, and hawkers and photographers. Unlike Dushanbe, people readily smile here and people aren’t the least bit afraid of asking for photos, which makes you feel like a celebrity. I took my share of photos as well so it all worked out evenly. By late morning, Tim and I decided to take separate walks and meet up later. On my walk, I found COFFEE, OH, GLORIOUS COFFEE!! I have been drinking instant coffee since September and while I can drink it, I admit that I had really been craving something better. While I normally try to avoid chains, Starbucks was a delightfully delicious treat.  

Tim and I had arrived early in India for a short vacation before I and all of the other State Department English Language Fellows from Central Asia, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal attended two 2-day conferences. The first one was a conference for the association of English teachers in India. The second one is the mid-year conference for the English Language Fellow program. We have been here 13 delightful, sensory overloaded days. The food has been delicious, and it’s very easy to eat vegetarian. The dialect of English spoken is fun to listen to and try to figure out. This makes me very curious about the need for ELFs here. 


Some fun facts.

The area of Mumbai is roughly 1.5 times bigger than Rhode Island but the population is more than 20 times greater than that in Rhode Island which explains the sensory overload. While we have been here, the Air Quality Index (AQI) has been above the safe range for more than half of the days. Because we are wealthy we can escape the hazards of the weather, but people without financial resources have to suffer. Here is an article about air quality in New Dehli.  Raising Kids in New Dehli's Worsening Air

A beautiful green mosque in the Crawford Market.
Tim with a holy man at an overlook for the largest outdoor laundry-Dhobi Ghat.
Chhatrapati Shivaj Terminus or Central Train Station in Mumbai.

We spent 13 days in Mumbai. It was a sensory overload experience. Would I go back? Yes, of course. Would I go back to a big city, maybe not. We did some fun things while there and saw some great sights and the food was fantastic, but it was stressful to have all senses constantly on high alert. 

A panorama of the field where we watched Buzkashi.

ELF Adventure #12

December 10, 2017


It’s not Rugby, it’s not polo…. It’s Buzkashi!


Buzkashi is the national winter sport of Tajikistan, the rest of Central Asia, and Afghanistan. It is played by men and viewed by men and boys only between the end of one growing season and the beginning of the next. Its origins are related to ancient nomadic lifestyles of the region when men had to be courageous, skilled horsemen. There is strong evidence that Central Asia is where horse domestication first happened and we can be sure that this was a major change in the world. So, I am told this game is played with just two teams in some places, and with groups of teams in other places. Today, I watched a game with many players (maybe there were 200 at the time we had to leave) who were members of many small teams which were indistinguishable because no one wore uniforms of any sort. Some of the men wore useless tank helmets of times past, helmets that also looked like early 20th century American football helmets.


Somebody explained to me that the players could join the game at any time and leave at any time. Most of the players arrived riding their horse, not with a trailer, which I think means they lived pretty close to the game location. The road to get to this field, by the way, was best traveled by a 4-wheel drive, but we did it in a soccer mom van. While we were there lots of cars streamed in and drove across the playing field as the game was in progress. My lack of understanding of why they drove through an active game just made it more delightful. My informant told me that today’s game was to celebrate the 8th birthday of the son of the organizer. When I reminded the man that birthday celebrations of any big sort (and this one was really big) were illegal, he told me not to tell anybody. So, please don’t tell anyone that it was really a birthday celebration. President Rahmon abolished big birthday, wedding, and other kinds of celebrations because it is a wasteful use of money. I think this is a good idea, but people still want to celebrate.


The game started at 10am. We got there at about 11 am and for two hours the game went on wildly. Then suddenly, at 1pm, the game stopped. While there were a couple of Plov (national rice dish) and Kebob stations around the field, they didn’t stop to let the horsemen have lunch, although some might have eaten. They did stop the game for Prayer. I was totally awed by the thought that anyone would stop a game this serious in the middle to pray.


The point of the game is to grab a heavy sack filled with a headless calf, goat, or sheep and carry it across a large ill-defined open space to the goal, which is called ‘door’ but looks like two mounds of dirt, while being chased by a horde of other players who want to get the sack with the dead, decapitated animal from you. The winner of each round got a prize that ranged from a carpet to a cow and lots of cash. It was very exciting because we never knew which way the massive group of speeding horses would go and a couple of times they came our way and got scarily close. There were also times when the horsemen crowded together and looked like they were fighting with each other, but they were really hitting the horses apparently. I didn’t like those parts as much as the excitement of the race across the large field and the thrill of maybe being trampled by them all. We did feel sort of safe because we were right by one of the food stations and we figured that no one would trample the food. All in all, it was an exciting time.



Men praying during the Prayer break at 1 pm
This spectator brought his own fancy chair to watch the game from.
The cafeteria is open for business.

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