Thoughts and Observations of my experience

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This woman is standing in the water channel to water the plants.
A new, mosaic sidewalk under construction.
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September 2 and 3, 2017

 

My new apartment.

 

I moved on September 1 to my new apartment which is directly across the street from the, very, very blue, Pedagogical Institute where I will be doing most of my work here. When I say new, I mean so brand spanking new that it still smells like the plastic that everything was recently wrapped in. Compared to most of the other apartments I looked at (10 in all) this one is pretty small: three rooms, a bathroom and a large hallway. What sold me besides the location? For one thing, there is a greater sense of safety than most of the others; the outside entry can be secure if people make sure to shut the door upon entry and exit, and the elevator is secure. The stairway is not, but my door has two keys that each control 3 dead-bolt locks. I have read and been told by the embassy that petty crime is relatively non-existent, but one should always be careful. In addition to all that security, each room in this apartment is decorated like it is part of a museum with wallpaper, accent walls, chandeliers, and artsy vases and statues (once the landlady stops coming by regularly, I am putting them deeply and safely away in an unused cupboard). This apartment is filled with high-end Bosch appliances as well, and like everything else, they are brand new. Lastly, and most importantly, this is an apartment with a TV in each of the three rooms. Who could say no to a TV in every room? All of the conspicuous wealth in this apartment is really curious to me because this is a developing country after all.  To make it more curious, the rent is $200 below my budget of $800/month. I will have to find out just how a Tajik person can afford to pay for all of this. (I later learned from Tahmina that the landlady is the owner of a private kindergarten here that charges $150 a month per child and I guess that explains how she can afford this kind of decorating.)  

 

The embassy stipulates that we should pay for everything in Tajik somoni, not the U.S. dollars that people who have wealth want. So I sent off an unhappy landlady with her first month’s rent in somoni not dollars as she had expected. Later, Tahmina explained about the dollar/somoni rule and my landlady now understands.

 

Soon after they left I discovered that there were several unfinished plumbing jobs. Fortunately, the toilet and the bathroom sink worked without a glitch. The kitchen sink, on the other hand, had no cold water, the hot water came when cold water should, the large water heater in the bathroom leaked, and the washing machine had not been hooked up at all. I got the landlady to send someone to fix it all the next day. (After almost a month, the plumber has been here twice and fixed everything but the leaking water heater.)

 

The apartment came with three separate couches. Two were in the living/dining room and the third was in the kitchen. I got the landlady to remove the leather couch and matching chairs and switch the dining table and chairs in the living room with the couch and coffee table in the kitchen. The apartment is delightful and very close to everything. I have been walking everywhere. Buses are cheap--one somoni or about $0.11. When it gets cold, I will start riding them.

 

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Monday Market ELF Adventure   #4             September 1, 2017

 

U.S. Tax Dollars at Work

      I’ve been here for four days already and the jet lag is finally wearing off. I have spent part of every day but the first, when all I did was sleep, being oriented at the embassy. I have never been so involved with an embassy before, and after just three days, I have an even greater respect for people in the foreign service and military than I did before. Let me explain.

         On the first day at the embassy I was briefed just like a regular diplomat because I am an American who will be working through and with the embassy. The briefings ranged from terror scary to medical scary and everything in between. I was given an I.D. card and can now enter the embassy alone and go to some of the non-secure areas without an escort.

         On the second and third day, I was introduced to all the English language programs that the State Department administers here. One is the program I am part of. Another is a Fulbright program for English Teaching Assistants (ETA), who work at places called American Corners which are basically American cultural centers. The one here in Dushanbe has a pretty big library that has a wide range of books from picture books to teen and adult literature to TOEFL practice books and grammar books. There is a presentation room for lectures and movies, and a couple of small classrooms (the kind I would feel right at home in) for clubs and group meetings. They have an incredible schedule of events, with clubs and workshops run by volunteers. Once I get a clear schedule from the university, I will begin working regularly at the American Corner as well. The building had recently been redecorated and it is now red, white and blue all the way. Everything in the American Corner is free which might explain why they have over 400,000 visitors each year!  There are six more in the country and the ETAs are going to be outside of Dushanbe each in a different city. Because the other English Language Fellow (ELF) Lynette and I are the English teaching authorities here, we have to visit the three ETAs at some point this year—yeah! By the way, the two ETAs I have met are amazing recent college graduates. One of them came here when she was in high school for one of the programs I will explain in a minute. The other one has traveled all over the place already and done work like this before. 

         I learned about all the work of the American Council (another offering of the State Department here) and was awed to hear of more good things our tax dollars are doing for diplomacy. There are summer exchange programs for Americans to learn Persian, a Critical Language, and for Tajik students to learn English in America. There are year-long programs that go in both directions as well. One that amazed me is called the FLEX program, and it is for high school students from Tajikistan and other former Soviet republics to go to the U.S. for a year. Another one is summer English camp programs in remote regions of the country. I, of course, volunteered to help in any way I could.  

         I had lunch with all of the Fulbright scholars (there are two more here to do research), several other embassy employees and the new Acting Ambassador at his house. It was humbling to hear all the reasons people were here.

         Then there was apartment hunting. I had a budget of $800/month, but what the agent was showing me for $600 was pretty amazing. After looking at about 10 apartments, I settled on the first one. This one was the smallest, I think, but it is brand new, and with a TV in each of the three rooms, how could I say no? When we sealed the deal today I was able to ask the landlord (through the agent) to remove the excess furniture (it looked like a furniture warehouse, swap the couch in the kitchen for the dining table and chairs in the living room, and provide things like a microwave oven, blankets, hangers, and most of all, WIFI! The landlady has made it easy for me to be a short-term tenant by providing things that I would have normally had to get on my own. All this for a mere $600! I think there will be no contract, which is delightful.

         Tomorrow is the first day of a four-day weekend for the embassy because of one local holiday and the American Labor Day holiday. The local holiday is called Idi Kurbonand it is tocelebrate that Allah (God) did not allow faithful Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ismail (Isaac), putting a ram on the sacrificial altar in his place. People do a lot of visiting and eating for this holiday. Sadly, I didn’t get invited to anybody’s house to learn more about the holiday. I will spend the weekend moving in and getting to know the city more. By the way, I have forgotten to say how beautiful the city center is. 

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Monday Market ELF Adventure                     #3    August 26, 2017

 

Flying on the Friendly Skies, and Fun Airports

 

On August 1st, 1975 I embarked upon a journey that would change my life direction. Today I embark upon a journey that will certainly have a profound effect on my life, maybe not as big as that first big adventure long ago, but I am certain that there will be change.

 

Today, August 26, 2017, it will take about 33 hours of elapsed time and four airport transfers to get from Rhode Island to Tajikistan. I am sure I will be exhausted when I arrive and meet the “expediter” at the gate. The person with this job description does exactly what you think, whisks you through immigration and customs for a mere $20. I know that at 3:35 am when I arrive, I won’t care how much he charges for that special service. I will also be met by Tahmina. I don’t know if I would willingly get up that early to meet someone who wasn’t even a family member at the airport. So far Tahmina has been a great support person.

 

Each airport was a different experience. Agnes, the clerk at T.F. Green airport with her nametag upside down, gave me 3 boarding passes and one imposter that said: THIS IS NOT A BOARDING PASS all in caps. I didn’t notice this until later when it was sort of critical, but I’m getting ahead of the story. Newark was a big busy terminal where I ordered my last vegan meal for a long time. It was weird, but I guess an appropriate send-off. No one told me that I would have to walk forever and then go through a security check again at Heathrow, so my carry-on bags with two water bottles got flagged and I had to drink a lot of water on the spot. Istanbul was different and, except for the fact that my two carry-on bags were getting heavier and heavier, a delightfully interesting and chaotic introduction to Asia. The airport was crowded with hurrying people in all sorts of different clothing. The women were especially noticeable in their long, often colorful garments and head scarves. I discovered the fake boarding pass while my plane from London was taxiing in to the terminal. It was slightly comforting that my name and a flight number were on it as well, but only slightly. The first thing I did was look at the board for the flight only to find that it wasn’t listed. I went into a little panic because I didn’t realize until much later that it wasn’t listed because of space on the board. I waited in the wrong line for much too long and then I found the right desk, got a proper boarding pass, and headed to the gate. At the gate we got on a bus and drove about a quarter of a mile from the terminal to the waiting plane. It was a packed flight and even though it left at 9 p.m. we were served a meal.

 

Upon arrival in Dushanbe I was whisked through the diplomatic passport line at immigration, and customs was nothing more than a machine like the kinds used for TSA security checks. After 15 minutes I was in the airport exit area being hustled by taxi drivers galore. Luckily, I was sticking close to my expeditor and he guided me to an embassy van that was waiting for me and several real diplomats. I slept most of the first day here and got up only to buy groceries with Tahmina. Aside from the exhaustion, my first impression was one of delighted surprise because I had prepared myself for a different kind of poverty than what my tired eyes initially saw.

 

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Monday Market ELF Adventure                     #2    August 26, 2017

 

How do you pack clothing and other essentials for 10 months and 4 seasons with a 30KG (66 pounds) weight limit?

And what teaching materials do you send that weigh no more than 70 pounds?


         These are tough questions for almost any teacher, myself included because hoarding little bits here and there, having backups for the day when supplies might run out, is an essential part of the job. In preparation for this trip, I have streamlined my personal and professional “junk” in significant ways. However, the restrictions for my upcoming flights are proving to be a challenge even for the minimalist in me; I want to bring more than I have space for. So I have to evaluate everything based on size, weight, and potential usefulness.

         Starting with a cheap ($12.00), giant bag from the Salvation Army didn’t help a bit because it weighed 16 pounds, empty.  When my clothing didn’t even fill half of the giant bag I knew that I would make it too heavy for the strongest among us. So I purchased a cheap 30” replacement bag that weighs 6 pounds, plus a couple of those super luggage straps—because I bought the bag at Job Lot, after all. If you have never been to Rhode Island, Job Lot is one of the fun cultural reasons to come, but you have to remember that it is always a shopping adventure and the quality of items is not consistent.

         There are lots of things I want to bring and some things I have to bring, and together they are just too much. For the past few days. I have packed and repacked and repacked in an attempt to make my personal possessions weigh no more than the 23 kilogram or 50-pound limit set by United Airlines, to avoid an excess baggage charge. I have failed so miserably that I decided to plan to check my carry-on bag and pay the extra fee. I think that the total weight of my bags will be about 70 pounds. (It turned out that my checked bags weighed 79 pounds or about 36 kilos.)

         Toiletries are an important and heavy addition so I am mostly bringing small sizes of those. Although I have bought non-prescription medicine in foreign countries before, I want to be sure that I can read the instructions for the medicines I am bringing this time for minor illnesses. In picking and planning gifts I have been very careful, but their weight adds up as well. Because of my decision to check the carry-on bag, I was able to find space in my new carry-on bag for a pair of roller skates for Tahmina’s oldest child. Tahmina is the Tajik employee at the Embassy who is my Point of Contact person. I am sure they will make her happy.

         I sent two boxes of teaching materials to the US Embassy in Tajikistan through the Diplomatic Pouch system; very exciting but a little frustrating because I don’t know much about my future students or what the university really expects of me. I have packed two boxes, one with resource books and one mostly with things I have made for listening and speaking activities, and DVDs. Even though they told me that I will be co-teaching, and speaking will be the focus, I won’t be surprised one bit if I get there and find out that they really want me to teach reading or writing. Thank goodness for resources on the internet. Together, both boxes, packed full, weighed less than 60 pounds. The boxes of supplies will arrive about three weeks after I do.

         If the bag breaks and the materials are wrong, I’ll have a little extra excitement at the start of my adventure. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Me and a year's worth of supplies in front of the car I sold to my daughter before departing.
These are some of the gifts I am taking with me. There are more, but you get the idea.
At the airport after 4 flights, 4 airports and about 33 hours. I was amazingly awake.
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Monday Market ELF Adventure                    

 #1     August 18, 2017

 

The Visa

How do you get a visa to be an ELF in Tajikistan?

 

To get our visas we encountered a couple of challenges and several surprises. Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet republics, surprisingly, has an online visa applications system and as is often the case when filling out online forms, there are some seemingly illogical choices. Getting stuck at "visa type" was the first challenge for me. After trying all the logical visa types like humanitarian, official, or maybe diplomatic, I had to take a screen shot of the choices and send it to the embassy in Dushanbe for advice. It turns out that I not only had to apply for a business visa, but the subcategory choice was "conference." I don’t think I will be at a conference for 10 months, but that is what my visa says. My husband Tim’s visa challenge was that he was invited by me to be my dependent, not invited by the government, so he had to submit documents that tied him to me. When we left for the pre-departure orientation in D.C. last month, we still had no definitive answer regarding the category of visa for which Tim should apply. The surprises came at the Tajikistan embassy where we had to get our visas issued and stamped in our passports. Surprise number one was that it didn’t take five days as I had been told twice when I called the embassy. The second surprise was that once my visa was approved and my passport stamped, Tim’s visa got straightened out quickly and easily. Lastly, the visa duration and cost was a huge surprise. I had applied for an 11-month visa and Tim had applied for a 7-month visa. I didn’t get what I applied for, but Tim did. We knew that we had to pay with money orders and initially, we each got a $160 money order for 3-month, multiple entry visas. Then, when they were processing Tim’s visa, which begins in January-2 months after my initial visa expires-they told him to get another money order! Yes, they gave me a 3-month visa which I will have to renew multiple times in-country and they gave Tim a 7-month visa which will cover all of his time in Tajikistan. The first 3-month portion cost $160 and the additional 4-month portion was only $100!

Because the day we went to the embassy was a mid-July scorcher we planned to start early and hoped to end quickly. We arrived at 9 am, the official opening time for the Consular Section; however, we learned that official opening time and real opening time are not always the same thing, so we got coffee and waited. The people at the embassy were very nice and except that we got to spend a lot of time in a small room, it was an easy process for both of us to get our passports stamped with visas. Tim just got a longer one, and one covering a time period when his host (me) does not yet have permission to be in the country. Sometimes bureaucracies defy logic. In November I will tell you what it is like extend a visa in Dushanbe. I am curious to find out if it will be easier or more challenging than the initial visa experience.

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