Thoughts and Observations of my experience


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.  

Pulling an unsecured faucet out of the sink is quite easy!

Monday Market, An ELF Adventure 7

 October 6, 2017

Everyone needs a good plumber.

I told you earlier about my water heater problem, right? My landlady’s brother and a plumber came over to fix it three different times. Finally, on the last visit they told me, with the help of Google Translate, that I just had to live with the sporadic and unpredictable dripping. Later, after relating the story to someone at the embassy, I learned that the water heaters here have no OFF or resting mode and the only way to regulate the pressure is by allowing water to drip out of the overflow valve. On the third visit they were also here because the bidet, which I have not used, randomly started leaking at floor level. They fixed this simply by turning off the water valve for the bidet. That’s sort of a solution. A couple of days after their third visit, while washing dishes, I managed to pull the kitchen faucet right out of the sink! It didn’t take much energy to do this because it had never been attached to anything. If I had had tools, I could have fixed it myself. Instead, I called the landlady again. She sent her brother and a new plumber. He fixed it pretty quickly and left me with a kitchen faucet that is just a little off center, which I think is a delightful reminder that things don’t always get fixed the way you might expect and the repair you get often works just as well as the repair you expected.


Monday Market, An ELF Adventure      6

September 4, 2017


Things to see and not see when out and about in Dushanbe


Tajikistan is the poorest of all the former Soviet republics, so I expected to see obvious signs of poverty. In the capital, I haven’t seen a whole lot of poverty yet.  All the primary and secondary roads, for example, are paved; some of the smaller roads or lanes are quite rough, but it is not easily visible. There is a lot of construction going on all over the city which would seem to contraindicate poverty. I’ll have to find out who is financing all this work. Interestingly, Tahmina says that the Soviet era 2-and 4-story buildings are built better than the new high-rises going up now. I thought about that when deciding on this apartment but I chose it anyway.

I have photos to attach to all of these observations, but for some reason (slow connection) I cannot upload photos at this time. I'll add them later. 



Sidewalks and Water Channels:               I expect to be a pedestrian most of my time here and I have already done a great deal of walking. One interesting feature of all sidewalks is that the elevation changes constantly, and randomly, and one must be ever alert. Yesterday, I learned with pain that I must pay careful attention to where my next step will be. When momentarily distracted, I tripped on the tiniest step increase in the sidewalk and have a big bruise as a reminder that footstep vigilance is necessary at all times. While it is true that many sidewalks are in some stage of completion, or not, the ones that are completely finished are often quite beautiful cement mosaics. Instead of big poured slabs which is common in the U.S., I have seen a variety of brick shapes made into beautiful sidewalk art. For all their rough unevenness, there seems to be a ramp at every crossing.


Between every sidewalk and the paved road is a cement lined irrigation channel. The water that runs in these channels is intended for watering trees and plants in the city. These are open channels and could be dangerous if you were parking a car and got too close to the sidewalk

Clothing:  While there are exceptions and some young people appear to be pushing acceptable limits, people generally dress conservatively here. Men and boys tuck in their shirts and use belts. Men tend to dress in black and white. Women and girls express themselves with brightly colored traditional outfits. They mostly wear one of two things that I do not know the names of yet. One of these garments is a long dress that looks very much like a Hawaiian mu’umu’u. I believe that they are tailor-made, but think you can get cheap ones at a store. If I could only find a store, I would know if this is true. I have seen some short-sleeved ones, but they are mostly long-sleeved. The other garment that women wear is a matching pants-suit type set that consists of a pair of long skinny pants and a long tunic. The length of the tunic can vary from mid-thigh to mid-calf. I am not sure of the fabric used, but the outfits look like they must be very hot in this summer weather. The last thing that most women wear is some sort of scarf. Because of this, I have no idea about most hair length or color. Also because of my lack of scarf and my clothing differences, I, with my short gray hair, knee-length skirts, and ¾ sleeve blouses, really stand out.


Jeans and t-shirts are not common for either men or women. Men wear leather-like shoes more than athletic shoes. Women wear closed-toe shoes and sandals; both are often with heels. Almost nobody wears a hat here even though it is semi-arid with blazingly bright and hot sun during the day. I have resisted wearing my visor because I wanted to look less foreign than I already do, but yesterday decided that I can’t change my foreignness or the funny way I must look, so I am going to embrace it.


School Uniforms:     Today is the first official day of the new school year. The young men streaming into the university wear the mandatory uniform of long-sleeved shirts and ties. Some go over the top and wear jackets. The women are dressed as described above. In the middle school or high school right near my apartment, all the students wear uniforms; black pants and white shirts for the boys, and white shirts and black jumpers, or skirts for the girls. There are variations on the primary and secondary uniforms, but everyone seems to wear uniforms at that level.


General Appearance of the City:       Dushanbe is in a basin surrounded by lots of tall mountains. This makes it hot in the summer. The city’s electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant which is right in the city. I had been told before coming that it was a dusty city, but seeing it is something completely different. Everything is muted with a coating of dust. Understandably, breathing problems are common here. In spite of all this dust, the main roads are relatively free of trash and are planted with pretty, dust-covered flowers and grass. When I arrived before dawn last week, I got to see the brigades of street sweepers getting ready for their daily street and sidewalk sweeping. Tahmina told me they start early so they can finish before too many people are out and about. On the main north-south road, Rudaki Avenue, I have seen these street sweepers out in the early evening as well.


Automobiles and Traffic:  I have not seen enough cars here to cause traffic jams. Interestingly, all cars here seem to be in pretty good shape. The speed limit is pretty low at 60km/hr (under 40mi/hr) and there are traffic police positioned at frequent intervals on the main roads to flag down violators. I have only been in one non-embassy car so I suspect I will really learn about Tajik driving habits when I go outside of the city in a car. Every crosswalk on the main streets has a timed crossing light that counts down red or green for both the pedestrians and the drivers. In spite of this, jay-walking happens everywhere.


Buildings and Monuments    Very large pictures of the president of Tajikistan compete with flags to decorate government buildings. The Pedagogical University picture posted earlier is a good example of the extreme patriotic behavior. No one has explained yet why my university and the Medical University down the street are so blindingly blue. I am going with a paint sale as the explanation until I learn otherwise! To add to the curiosity of the blue, the inside of my university is, at least partly, pink in the halls!



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