Thoughts and Observations of my experience

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. 


Monday Market, An Elf Adventure #10 December 4, 2017

Getting a Visa Extension

Part 1                  Finding a doctor who would fill out the medical forms…


I wrote earlier about getting a visa in Washington and now I will tell you how I got an extension to my visa. The only responsible role the university has taken with my placement is getting my visa extension and new registration work done. It started with a bio and a medical visit for HR. The bio was easy, because Tahmina, my support person at the embassy, wrote it for me. The medical visit was simultaneously interesting and frustrating. Before I tell you how it worked, I should say that I did not understand until much later why I needed this visit because I had gotten a medical clearance before coming and thought that was certainly enough. The university needed me to see a doctor for their records and it didn’t matter what I had done before. Here is how it worked. One Friday morning a few weeks ago, the assistant dean who is in charge of taking sick students and faculty to the doctor and I headed out to the regular clinic across the street from the school. They refused to help in any way because of my obvious foreignness. This created a momentary problem for the assistant dean because he wanted to call his brother, a doctor somewhere in the city, for advice but he had no credit on his phone. Luckily he accepted using mine and the call went through, he got the advice, and we marched off to the Tajik State Medical University which happens to be the second “Big Blue Building” a few blocks away on Rudaki Avenue. (My university is the first “Big Blue Building” on the street.) We must have gone into six different offices in old Soviet buildings with uneven doors, stair risers, and paint before we finally got to the last one. When my guide politely knocked and then walked into an examination room with a patient being examined, I was flabbergasted. He and the doctor, who was a woman, had a long talk while I and the patient made eye contact. She was fully clothed, but what would have happened if that hadn’t been the case? I don’t know.  We left the room and went to an unmanned desk and waited until the clerk was summoned to take my money for the ‘examination.’ I paid 73 Somoni (about $8.30) for some still unknown purpose. The clerk gave me change from his pocket which is odd for the U.S. but not so odd here. Then we hiked up four flights of stairs to a large, empty lecture room that had about eight closed doors on one side and windows on the other. One of the doors opened and a nurse, or doctor, I don’t know which, came out and ushered us in. I said no to the requested blood draw which was purely a formality until I saw that the needles were individually packaged. They had no intention of doing anything with the blood, it was for protection from the potentially prying eyes of the Ministry of Health, or Foreign Affairs, or some other bureaucratic agency that might show up to check their records. At this point, we were about two hours into this “quick” clinic visit to get what I thought was just a simple form and barging in on the original doctor again with another patient in the examining room bothered me, partly because I didn’t know why we had to go back and partly because I didn’t understand why I had to pay the doctor 50 extra Somoni (about $6.00). My guide said it was for her to take care of the seven other signatures needed on this medical form and to save me from being there all day. A few hours later the signed form arrived back at my university, I took it over to the correct office along with the bio and it went to the university’s HR office where they created a letter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Part 2         Who knows what and who does what?


The university has had foreign students from Turkmenistan for a long time and Chinese and Korean teachers for at least five years. They do all the visa work for these two groups of foreigners. So, you would think that they would have visa extensions for students and teachers totally figured out and it would be quick and easy. However, that was not what I experienced. There were several glitches in the procedure they followed. They first sent me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a handler and three Turkmen students. It was a brand new building that looked like a DMV office with long rows of seats with little leg room and a ticket system for talking to the clerks. The three students were in and out in no time at all. My case, of course, was different, and the clerk rejected my application because he said I needed to have a work permit or something. I confirmed that it wasn’t a new policy, so one wonders why the university sent me there without it. The university’s behavior became even more curious when I learned that I and the other foreign teachers at the school are not employees, we are like volunteers, and do not require work permits. So, why didn’t the handler tell them that? I don’t know. My visa expired on November 27th and it was getting dangerously close to that deadline with no progress. In addition to the deadline, I was going on a trip right after Thanksgiving that required a special permit, to be issued only with a passport with a valid visa. About a week before the end of my initial visa period they took my passport and about $100 to get my visa extension. Unfortunately, that is the cost of a student visa extension, not a teacher visa extension, which was well over $200. That delayed the process a bit more. Fortunately, they got my new visa and sent my passport over to a travel agency/document handler company that got my registration updated and got the permit to travel just a few hours before the journey began. My visa is good for one year, so thankfully I won’t have to go through that again. Slow, frustrating bureaucracy is everywhere, and this experience is no different from what you would experience getting a visa extension in many other countries.


Abdullo at the American Corner. He is wearing his school uniform.

Monday Market, An Elf Adventure # 9 November 12. 2917

Oh, the people you meet...

Last week Friday I walked part of the way home from the American Corner with a young man about 12 years old named Abdullo, who is very eager to learn English. He borrows books every week from the AC library and I think he really reads them. He prompted this entry when he very sincerely asked me if I was born in a village or a city. I told him I was born in a city and asked about his birthplace. It turns out that he was born in a city as well, but his mother and sisters were born in a village. The complete innocence of his question reminded me of what a different place I am in. 

Let me introduce you to some of the other people I encounter regularly. 


First, there is the lady next door who I was instructed by my landlady to avoid like the plague. I wasn’t sure why, but I did for two months. It wasn’t a comfortable situation and it came to a head a couple of weeks ago when she tried to wrestle the elevator fob out of my hand and off my keychain. Luckily for me, Tahmina (from the U.S. embassy) was coming over that day to talk to the landlady with me about the rental contract. Somehow, I got this information to the neighbor, who later appeared at my apartment at exactly the time I told her Tahmina would arrive. There was a long discussion with Tahmina and then another long discussion when the landlady arrived. Finally, they all decided that I would have to pay the 50 Somoni (about $4.50) elevator fee that I had been instructed to avoid. When I went over to the neighbor’s apartment with Tahmina to pay for my two delinquent months, Nigina became my new BFF. She lives alone and invited me to come over for lunch or dinner, or just about anything else that I could need. What a transformation!

Students and a teacher in one of the very small, crowded classrooms.

Then, there are the teachers I work with at the university every day. These people have chosen a profession that is much more difficult than the profession I have chosen even though you might think that we are doing the same thing. They are English language learners themselves and they have been given inferior tools to deliver a complex product and will, because of circumstance, find it challenging to adequately prepare their students who will then become the next generation of English teachers. I would never have had the courage to do what they do. There have been moments when I have felt frustrated because I wanted them to do more on their side of the mentor (me)/mentee (them) relationship, but then I realize that they are not to blame for the expectation that I give them “the answer.” We start teacher workshops next week and I hope that they will participate fully in creating sets of communication activities that they can use with any textbook they choose.


The students, of course, are eager to learn English, but don’t always seem eager to do the work involved. I still haven’t figured out the whole education system here. I generalize greatly, but it doesn’t seem to encourage effort. Since they have had little to no practice with spoken English and native speak models have been few and far between I think they are expecting me to be like their Tajik teachers. Therefore, they are generally quite unwilling to speak in a classroom situation, unless, of course they can speak in Tajik. Students all come to the university in “uniforms” and must walk the gauntlet of “fashion police” administrators every morning. If they get three citations for inappropriate clothing, their parents get called. For men it is fairly easy to see what is irequired (necktie, tucked shirts, belts), but for women it is much more difficult to see what could be deemed wrong. One day I learned that because the university prohibits symbols of religious extremism, a woman with her neck covered with her scarf was considered inappropriately dressed and consequently, written up.  


Denis and his Hike Tajikistan group are great entrepreneurs who take groups of foreigners out and about to hike in this beautiful country. They are personable and helpful and they provide cookies and tea for each hike. There is probably no easy hike in this country, so these guys work hard for their money. On one hike, Denis walked me down a very steep gravelly hill that I would have had to slide down otherwise. On a weekly basis, I think these guys earn more than a doctor does in a month! 

Who would have ever thought these two women were bill collectors?

The funniest experience I have had with people in this country is with bill collectors. In this country bill collectors come to your house or apartment to leave the bill and then come back a couple of days later to collect the payment. Everyone told me not to worry because they always came on a weekend and that utilities would be turned off for late payment. So, one Sunday morning when a man with a tablet knocked on my door, I wasn’t surprised. I did have to get a coat to cover up my nightgown, but that didn’t seem to disturb him. What did disturb him greatly was that I did not have the bill which is required for making the payment. I had lots of money, but he didn’t want any without the bill. We could not speak each other’s languages and my translation app was not proving very useful. It didn’t help that neither the landlady or my great helper, Tahmina were not answering their phones. I tried everything to communicate with this man, but he just got more and more frustrated. Finally, he gave me his phone number and name and the next day Tahmina called him to explain everything. One day after her call he came back and seemed to apologize, and then he disappeared without giving me a bill or collecting any money. I can’t explain that any more than this.


Then about a week after he came back two women came to my door on a Tuesday evening. They had a big calculator and one of them showed me how much I owed for one of the utilities. I didn’t know which one she was collecting for, but I knew how much she wanted. Between the time I left the door to go and get the money and the time I returned to the front door (maybe 45 seconds) the bill collector had begun a very loud and raucous verbal fight with a tenant from upstairs. I stood in the door with money in hand and watched the fight. It continued for many minutes and then, seemingly suddenly for me because I didn’t understand anything, they disappeared up the unlit staircase to the arguer’s apartment, I thought. I still hadn’t paid my bill and I still had the money ready. They never came back that night. So, I was surprised a week later while I was walking home from getting a toner cartridge refill for my printer when I suddenly heard a loud woman sort of shouting. I looked around to see the problem and realized that the woman was shouting at me. It took me a few minutes to realize that it was one of the bill collectors who had been calling out to me on the sidewalk. At first I just spoke to her and her friend (the other female bill collector from the week before) in English (which they couldn’t understand, but I couldn’t understand them either…) and then after I realized who they were, I moved closer and was confronted by the big calculator again. It turned out that each of these women wanted money from me for a different utility, I thought. Neither of these women knew what my name was, so I had to write my name on my hand for them to copy onto the forms and then I paid them right then and there on the sidewalk. I wondered as I pulled out 174 Somoni ($20) and 140 Somoni ($16) out of my wallet what Tajik person would have that much money in their wallet while walking home. I was warned that I should always make sure to get a receipt for utilities, or the collectors will come again to get the same money. This time I not only got a receipt, but I took a picture of them as well. One of the women didn’t like the first picture (which was a good call), so I then took the approved one posted here. I found out the next day that one of the bills was for electricity and the other was for taxes. I will have to get my landlady to pay the tax bill. I still don’t know how to pay my water bill……


When the biggest note is only about $11, you need a lot of paper to pay the rent.

Monday Market, An  ELF Adventure # 8           October 6, 2017

Boy, that is a big stack of money!

Three days ago, my landlady and her brother came over to survey the sink damage I had reported on the phone and to collect rent. She wanted two month’s rent this time, which was fine with me because it would free me from worrying about getting cash for her for two months. I get my cash from ATM machines, and as in the U.S. there are individual and daily transaction limits.

         The individual transaction limit is 1,000 somoni, or about $114.00. The daily limit is either two or three transactions. For two month’s rent, I needed $1200 or 10,560 somoni which means, of course, that I had to plan carefully to get all of this cash. The ATM machines give you a combination of 100 (about $11), 50 (about $5.50), 20 (about $3.20) and 10 (about $1.10) somoni notes. Since I have found the 50 and 100 somoni “big bills” are hard to spend everywhere outside of the supermarket (which isn’t really very ‘’super” but it isn’t an outdoor farmers market either), I got out more than I needed in order to give her as many 100s and 50s as possible. Now I just have to wait for the electric bill meter reader/collector to come by. I don’t know how or whether I have to pay the water bill, but I think that it and the electric bill get paid at a kiosk along with phone and internet bills as well. The phone and internet service does not actually send you a bill, you just have to add more money to your account to make it keep working. I learned this month that once you have used up the allotted data in your internet plan, they don’t cut off your service, they just slow it down dramatically. I have asked my landlady to increase the data size of my internet package and am waiting for her to do so. I have so much to learn.  

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