Thoughts and Observations of my experience

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.
The man in red is the announcer who rode a white horse and directed with a megaphone.
This is the prize truck. The man on the horse is collecting his prize.
One of the brave horsemen with his tank helmet.

Monday Market, An ELF Adventure #11 December 4, 2017

I talked to Afghanistan …


….. and Afghanistan talked back!

On November 25th Lynette, the other ELF in Tajikistan, Tahmina, an embassy driver and I piled into a pristinely white embassy 4-wheel drive vehicle to drive two days in each direction to spend three days in the capital of the GBAO region of Tajikistan (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast). Basically, this means that it is a different region with a different language and culture from the rest of the country. It is also the home of the Pamir Mountains, appropriately nicknamed the “roof of the world.” I say this even after only looking at one small section of the range; the mountains are tall, majestic, and endless.


While locals travel to Khorog in shared taxis for about $22.00 and 15 hours, the U.S. embassy requires drivers to take two days to get there. This is because more than half of the drive is on a single-lane, dirt road without guardrails that is heavily used by freight trucks transporting goods to remote towns and villages between China and many parts of Tajikistan. It snakes through the mountains and along cliffs; it’s a heart stopper of a ride! At the same time, the beauty of the mountains, the Panj River and Afghanistan are overwhelming.


The first part of the journey from Dushanbe travels through cities, towns, and villages that all begin to look the same. Drivers can go faster and drive a little more dangerously on these roads because, as Lynette said on the way back, “there are four lanes, or maybe six depending on how you drive.” One really impressive sight on the first day is passing by the lake made by the Norag Dam (there are many different spellings for the name of this dam) which is one of the biggest in the world. The dam has made a lake 70 Km long and 5 Km wide and the hydroelectric plant provides electricity for Dushanbe and surrounding areas. The views of the lake from the road are breathtaking. I can’t wait to go back there when it is warm again.


On the first day, getting some necessary supplies like ping pong balls--my new favorite limited-resource tool-- and dry erase markers before heading out of the city ensured that we would arrive at our hotel in Qal’ ai-Khum, the last ‘big town’ before the river, after dark. We were all so tired we didn’t even try to look for food; we planned our time in Khorog instead. Our hotels, by the way, are all approved by the U.S. embassy and this one was among the fanciest I have stayed in anywhere—except that they had to go to the roof each time to fiddle with the pipes so I could have hot water.


The second day began bright, early and bumpy. We quickly got our first glimpse of Afghanistan, on the other side of the river paralleled by the road. The enormity and magnitude of the quiet, majestic mountains that protected the river and the small oasis-like villages on each side of the river from the world and each other was just jaw-dropping. Our cameras could barely keep up with our desire to capture every view from every angle. After well over 250 bumpy, winding, dangerous kilometers, we arrived in Khorog in the dark, on a Sunday. So we had no dinner, again. I began calling it the DIET trip. We passed through about nine named villages on the Tajik side of the river and even though we didn’t count, we were sure that there were at least twice that many Afghan villages across the river in the same stretch. Lynette and I tried to imagine who would want to swim across the river, where they would cross it, and what time of day they would try to cross it. It was a pretty fast running river and we never could decide where the best crossing place was. That this region requires a pass means that there are armed border guards at intervals patrolling the road on foot, so maybe nobody tries to cross the river. We found a few nice looking beaches on both sides, but decided that the water was probably always a little too cold for pleasure.


Our three days in Khorog were extremely busy. Lynette had to visit teachers in the Mentor Program she is teaching this year and I had to present workshops at the American Corner, School # 2, and at Khorog State University. My first visit was to School #2 to work with three teachers for the morning. All of these Professional Development workshops I have to give in limited resource areas to teachers with limited resources are really humbling. The preschool teacher I worked with that morning and the teachers at a supplementary school, who ran before and after school classes for primary students (they only go to school for half days because of space and staffing), and a preschool enrichment program, that we visited three days later on the way back, both benefited from a shared resource I got a few years ago from Sue England, a first grade teacher in North Kingstown who is now retired. The teachers we visited are starved for resources and ideas but with no money, they hardly think of getting any. I was able to share a CD of music and movement that would help the children improve their English. Check out the videos to see both groups dancing and singing.


Khorog State University was my last visit. I worked with nine teachers who reported that they couldn’t use the state-mandated textbook because there were none available for sale anywhere in the city! So they are piecing together materials, but they can’t easily photocopy things and they, like the teachers at my university, don’t have any technology available to them at the university. I gave them several new ideas for low-budget activities in the short time I was with them. The teacher who walked with me back to my hotel after that workshop told me that the state university teachers in Khorog earn 700 Somoni a month, which is about $80.00. I can’t imagine life on an $80.00 budget.


On the way back to the big city I was on the river side of the car and I decided that I would wave and sometimes holler “hello!” to people across the river. They didn’t know who I was or where I was from but about 10 people waved because I waved first! The U.S. has had strained relations with Afghanistan for a long time, but my gesture and their return gesture proved to me that people all want the same thing; it is only the crazies among us who want something different.


41 years ago, long before Lonely Planet Guidebooks could tell you everything you wanted to know and more about any country, I traveled through Afghanistan with no guidebook and no idea what was there to see.  Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote home to my parents.

January 11, 1976

            We have been here in Afghanistan for about one week and will be leaving on Tuesday for Pakistan. This is the most fascinating place Ive been in so far on this journey. You can find anything here from a mud village to a modern city. From open water systems (very dirty) to steak for $.50! We spent about four days in the second largest city called Kandahar and at our hotel, they still got water from a well! And you could ride in a horse-drawn carriage (a taxi) for about $.20. The atmosphere is very tense because these people want what youve got because they are so poor. I got ripped off by a cashier at a bankhe shorted me about $.20 and put it in his pocket. The amount is not important just the fact that they will do it if they can!

            Life is very cheap for the traveler here. You can eat and sleep for less than $2.00 per day! Until now the food was very poorreally gross, in fact! Now that we are in the capital, Kabul, we are eating like pigs! Until here I was having a food fantasy of steak and baked potato and here for $.50 you can have a pretty decent size steak with all the trimmings, tasting good too! Supposedly, it will be good from here on til India.

I saw a lot of mud villages on the journey to Khorog, so maybe not much has changed in 41 years except that there have been wars galore in that poor country. 

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