Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"What a cultural difference!": Reflections on a month in Monday

I made it! I am safely and happily back in the USA, sitting in a hotel room in Seattle with Katie. We are already on day two of our trip, and are heading to a cabin on Lopez Island thanks to a friend of ours. I haven't had too much trouble with jetlag, though I don't think all of Tajik Tummy has processed out of me juuuuuust yet. Let's go with 60% on that.

Something I've noticed about how I've been speaking since I've returned is how often I make observations in reference to Tajikistan. Partially because I now feel like I have stories to tell, and partially because I am still processing all of the trip, it seems that every other sentence begins with: "In Dushanbe/Tajikistan, they would/seemed to think/acted like..." or "Another interesting thing about Dushanbe/Hissor/Varzob/Tajikistan..." or some other such phrasing. I feel bad for poor Katie, who planned out this belated anniversary/birthday trip as a vacation for us (okay, I don't feel that bad; we're still having a great time) and has to listen to me babble on about Tajikistan and the many things I noticed there. Still, I think it is important for me to feel comfortable mentally working through all of what the trip meant and means to me. I find myself thinking about how crazy, or interesting, or just plain cool some of the experiences and cultural standards are, and I think a post-trip reflection is in order.
  • No one wears seatbelts in Tajikistan. Besides everyone being a racecar driver, they also seem to genuinely lack a fear of danger in the car. Pedestrians cross the street with oncoming cars flying toward them, and cars just beep at people in the road without slowing down. I don't think I want to be that fearless.
  • The standards for feeling shame about staring and asking personal questions are vastly different in Dushanbe. One of the main things I noticed in Dushanbe was how often people openly stared, giggled, pointed, laughed, waved, and followed me and us. Also, probably the most asked question outside of, "How are you?" was "Are you married?" followed by "Do you have a girlfriend?" followed by "Do you plan to get a Tajik wife?" Easily within the first 10 sentences of almost every conversation.
  • Nikruz, Bobo and I were walking down the street one day; I don't remember where or why. I think it was to the university for an excursion. Anyway, we passed a kid on the street (couldn't have been more than 12) who said as we walked by, "Che farqe farhangi," in a curious voice. After a few steps, I realized he'd just said, "What a cultural difference," referring to us.
  • You can negotiate the price on nearly everything in Tajikistan. I once paid 20C for a set of postcards which were listed at 25C. AT THE POST OFFICE.
  • I find myself sitting anxiously in cars here, wondering why the driver isn't cutting off the person ahead of us or taking a dangerous turn that we really shouldn't take.
  • I love the American speed of service. Last night Katie and I went to dinner, and not once did we have to ask for more water, or request another drink, or replace anything. The server asked us if we wanted anything.
  • Water doesn't cost 2.50C, and I don't have to drink it out of a bottle.
  • One of the things we noticed in Tajikistan is how little people rely on the internet. My host family didn't even have a computer (that we could see; to be fair, they did have a room that I never entered. Nikruz, confirmation on the back room?) or internet access in the house. One of the most annoying things about the trip was going into the computer room and not having internet, with no discernible reason other than someone hadn't turned on the connection. However, plenty of cafes and restaurants had WiFi. I think that must cater to the expat/Russian communities in the city. Probably my biggest mistake of the trip was not taking my laptop. Also, one of the greatest parts of being back is having internet at all times, in all places, already paid for.
  • Everything is national in Dushanbe. ACT was in the national library; we studied at the national university; we visited the national museum. It seems that Tajikistan is a nation searching for its identity, and in its search has decided everything important must be named the "national" such-and-so. 
  • There was plenty of what Bobo called "Construction of Stupidity" in the city. From the largest flagpole with the largest flag, to the soon-to-be World's Largest Teahouse, plenty of funding seems to have been spent on things that contribute little to the country's services and people, but lots to its bragging rights.
  • Everyone seems older in Tajikistan. Partially because everyone gets married and has children younger (this is especially hard on the women - our host mother was younger than me and has three), and partially because life is generally harder and people die younger, everyone seemed to be older than they really were. Sharif's father was the same age as my father, but I thought the man was at least 65.
  • Tajiks don't drink water. I did not once see anyone in our house besides Nick and me drink water, ever. Not even out of the tap. They actually strongly believe that drinking water at all while you are sick will make it worse, and that you should only drink tea or compote as a general rule. It is actually really disturbing.
  • People assume all foreigners know Russian, and most of what is spoken on the street is either Russian outright, or Tajik with a healthy helping of Russian words. If you are speaking Tajiki to someone, they will probably start by answering in Russian. If you say you don't speak Russian, they will respond with a sentence that is about half Russian, or a full Tajiki sentence which is mumbled. If you didn't hear correctly and ask them to repeat it, they will assume you don't know Tajiki and go back to full Russian.
  • Apparently, after taxes and all other costs, it is about $120K standard to buy a car in Tajikistan. Somehow, every extended family has at least one car.
As things come to me, I will update this list over the next week. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed the trip, will fondly post pictures soon, and am looking forward to getting back to my regularly scheduled life.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Have you ever started listing things you miss about home?

The last few days we have been fantasizing about things we miss about home. I think it was both a coping mechanism to deal with the fact that we are leaving as well as truly missing the US. Whatever the reasons, there are things that I truly miss about being stateside, especially - ESPECIALLY - food. To that end, I will now list for you the most important food items I need to experience upon my return.

* Pizza
* Burritos (Qdoba or Chipotle preferred, but damn it I will eat Taco Bell)
* Sushi
* Olive Garden breadsticks
* Anything from Red Lobster
* Macaroni and cheese
* Oatmeal raisin cookies!!!
* Bacon cheeseburger w/ an over-mid egg
* Orange juice
* Arby's curly fries
* Wendy's Baconator
* Pulled pork sandwich
* Anything with olive oil in it
* Movie nachos
* Mu Shu Pork
* Steak. STEAK.

And finally,

* A ham and cheese sandwich.

All dressed up and nowhere to go...

Nikruz va Delbar raftand. I am happy I have gotten to know them over the last few months, and I look forward to seeing them in the future, but I was sad to see them off. I know they look forward to getting home, as do I, but it is hard now that the program is ending to watch small groups break off and leave. I think Nikruz leaving is especially difficult for me since he and I have been rolling buddies throughout the trip, and now it is just me and the fam. No one to ask translation questions, no one to laugh at my bad American jokes, and no one's iPad to steal to play video games. (I do still have Pokemon, so that's something.) Still, I think about what a great time we've all had here together, and how much I've learned, and I think it was worth it.

Last night Jill and I went to the Hotel Tajikistan and hung out for a while. Jill leaves tomorrow, but she's coming back to Dushanbe in a week, so I'm interested to see how that works out for her. The rest of us are leaving in a bigger group for Istanbul on Monday morning, which means I have today and tomorrow to figure out something to do with myself. Sharif wants to take the family to his father's house overnight and come back tomorrow. When we talked about it last night, he said we'd go after he finished work, meaning 5 or 6. Today, he showed up at 11:30 and said we should head out soon. I'd been planning to go to the bazaar for a gift for our professor, and then hitting up a hotel for WiFi, but now I'm rushing around Dushanbe to get everything done that I wanted before heading to the mountains with them. Not that I don't think a night in the mountains will be fun, but I do wonder what there will be for me to do there besides walk around and take pictures. His father is very religious, and I doubt there's any place to hang out anyway (coffee shop or whatnot), so my day of errands and leisurely blogging has become a hunt for filling time half an hour away from the city. I also know I really shouldn't complain, because they're allowing me to stay with them over the weekend (the program was designed to end this morning with Nikruz and Delbar's flight), but I can't help feeling like there are so many other things I want to do that I just won't get done. I guess that's part of being in a place you like for one month - it's never enough time.

But! I am excited about my travels with Katie this coming week. One, it will be great to be back with her. Two, I haven't been to Seattle, Vancouver, or Portland, so all of those sound amazing. Also (if she lets me) I will upload all of my pictures using her computer, and you can finally see all of the places I've been and things I've done! That is probably my biggest project over the next few weeks (outside of, you know, getting ready for my last year of the Masters program at WU).

Anyway, I should probably call Sharif and let him know I'm ready for the mountains. I wish I had known we're going earlier; I would have taken an immodium when I got up instead of after lunch like I planned. I just hope there's a Western toilet somewhere.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Exams Are Over: The Interview for Tajikistan Television

Wednesday night Nikruz and I gave our present to our family. We got some pictures of the five "kids," bought a frame, had them printed, and gave them the set with the best picture framed. Shahnoza was extremely happy with it, and Sharif said we'd done a good job.

Afterward we went to the final party, which we all thought was funny since we hadn't had exams yet. The food was pretty good, and we got our certificates and flowers (which we gave to Shahnoza when we got back), but the really great part was the dancing. Sharif ended up coming even though he'd said he was tired, and he forced Nikruz and me to dance. We all had a great time singing, dancing, and eating. Nikruz and I also recited some poetry, which went over incredibly well.

Thursday, we had our written exam. Before it actually started, Surayyo told us that there would be a news crew at the school on Friday to interview any students that wanted. The program is designed to give people here an idea of what foreign students are doing and what they think about Tajikistan and Dushanbe. Azim came in and said the same thing, and asked who wanted to be interviewed. Since we were taking an exam, I said I was not sure and would tell them later, and went back to work.

After the exam, Surayyo came up to me in the computer room and asked if I would be willing to share the poem with the news crew. She said that everyone was talking about the poem after the party, and how much they liked it. I don't think she was trying to butter me up, but at any rate, it worked, and I agreed.

Last night we hung out in Sadbarg park for a few hours. We ended up talking with a few random kids who were roaming around, and got some looks, but for the most part people left us alone. It was the first time in public in the city where I felt like people weren't concerned at all about us. I really enjoyed not being stared at.

This morning, we came in for our unofficial OPI exams. However, the TV crew showed up early, so we did interviews first. Jamie, being in the 3rd year Tajik class, went first; I went second. I talked about the trips that we've taken, and my general experience with my family and the people here. He asked me what my favorite part of Tajikistan was, but I misheard the question, so I recited Nader Naderpour. Afterward, he asked the same question, which I answered correctly, and then we finished my part. I asked if I should do it again, but they said it was great and they could edit it if necessary. After everyone finished, the interviewer asked for my email and gave me his, and said we should keep in contact before I leave because they may be doing another interview this weekend. I told him I'd be happy to do so.

Finally, I had my OPI with Azim. He said that since I am third year we were going to skip all the easy questions, so he asked me what got me started in Persian. I talked about my buddy Majeed starting Persian freshman year, and how we had this elaborate plan to be in the second year Persian class together junior year. (That didn't happen.) Afterward, we talked about my professors, and where I go to school. We chatted for a while about whether I think heritage speakers of a language should be in a class with non-heritage speakers (it depends). We finished with him inviting me to his house for Eid, and offering recommendations and references for any programs I may do in the future. It was a very nice end to the program, and I am glad I got the chance to spend time just speaking with the program director in the target language. I felt very comfortable during the interview, which I think is a good sign.

Tonight, Nikruz and I are making dinner for our family as his last hurrah. Tomorrow, I am solo in the house. I am looking forward to Eid, but I am also looking forward to sleeping a lot.

Nikruz, doqoluyeman, I will miss you.

Bazaare Korvon (Or: When I Finally Started Paying Local Prices For My Merchandise With Minimal Effort)

Since we didn't have official class on Wednesday, the professors gave us choices as to what we could do. We were offered a trip back to Korvon, a movie, or time to study for the exams. I opted for a trip back to Korvon to pick up a few more souvenirs. We went in a mashuka (a car that runs along bus lines to specific places for 3C; a taxi ride would cost about 15-20C) and planned on only being there for about an hour. We ended up staying for over three and I bought so much stuff I had to buy another bag!

Before we actually got in, I bought a pair of sunglasses (I broke my spare set at Varzob; very sad). I chatted with the seller for a while about why we'd come, and what the US was like. After a bit, I asked him how much for the glasses. The seller told me they were 20, but I told him I could do twelve. He was shocked that I spoke Tajiki and not Russian, and that I asked for a discount in Tajiki, and told me that because I was an honored guest he could do 15. Because the group was waiting for me, I went ahead and bought them. We shook hands and he thanked me for telling him about the US.

The group started at a jewelry and bag shop. I saw a few small mirrors that I liked, and I asked how much they would be. The first woman worked exclusively in jewelry, so she sent me another older woman to help. I found out they were 20 each, but she said she could do 15 for me because I was a visitor. I looked at about ten, trying to find one without any blemished. In the end I got two, and asked Surayyo whether it was a good purchase. She looked at them, and asked me twice how much I paid. She was surprised that I got such a good discount without having to ask for it! At this point, I felt pretty good.

Next we visited a carpetseller, who was a teenaged boy. Surayyo told us that we were required to do all of the talking and haggling as our "final class." I liked a few of them and decided to ask about them. He quoted me 40C for each; they were all beautifully crafted prayer rugs. I told him that I could do 30, which got no response. We chatted for a while, and I had him pull out various colors. Eventually, I decided on three of them, and asked how much for all three. He said 120. I started laughing and said, "There's no discount! I'm buying three." He quoted me 110. I looked at Surayyo, who just grinned at me and said, "It's your choice." I told him I could do 90, to which he replied 100 for all three. I hemmed and hawed, and said I really needed to do 90. He told me 95 was as low as he could go. I thought about it for a minute, and agreed, after which Surayyo used the price I was quoted and bought two for herself at the same rate. After we left, she told me I had found a very good price and that the rugs were great quality for that price. I was ecstatic.

Afterward, I bought a few other things, including a bag for all my stuff. I gave the bagseller a hard time because each bag had something wrong with it, but in the end I found a very good one and got him to drop the price 20%. After that, we went across the street to look at floor rugs. I found a style I wanted, and asked for the owner. The owner came out, we greeted, and then I asked about a specific style and color of rug, which I didn't see and I wasn't sure if they had. He asked Mark and me to come with him, and he took us upstairs to the actual warehouse shop. There were rows upon rows of carpets, and in various rooms there were women weaving and finishing carpets. I found one which was exactly what I wanted, and I had them hold it out while I inspected. We talked about the price, agreed upon it, I paid, and we left. Mark and I met up with the ladies and we caught two cabs back to the university. Once we got back to the school, I unrolled it and both Surayyo and Layli admired it and asked how much. They were really happy about how much I paid, and Surayyo told me I'd had a great day at the bazaar. When I got home and showed my host family, they said the same thing. It was the first time Sharif didn't ask why I didn't get something cheaper! All in all, I was very happy with my purchases, and I finally got all of the souvenirs I wanted.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tamaam mi shavim: The End Is Near

Monday and Tuesday were our final two days of class. Surayyo Khanum (apparently I have been spelling that incorrectly; my bad) went over a couple new lessons with us, the final of which she said would not appear on the exam. We didn't have any excursions on either afternoon since we were preparing for exams and since our final dinner was scheduled for Wednesday night. We all expressed mixed feelings about the end of the program; we have really enjoyed classes here, and Surayyo has gone well above and beyond what we expected out of our professors here. I don't know how she finds the time to take care of her own family AND be with us everywhere we go, but she does, and I, for one, am incredibly grateful for it. I certainly have learned a great deal while being here, and a large chunk of it has been directly because of her.

Monday was my final Poetry Club for ACT. We set up for the large groups we've been getting, but ended up only having 10 people, including Jill and me. We moved to a table for a smaller setting, and had what I think was the best session yet. We'd chosen a group of translated poems by modern Tajik and Iranian poets,  which we were able to listen to in Persian before reading them in English. The group really responded well to hearing the poems in their native language first, then hearing us read them. We also chose a couple American poems, and everyone was really excited about them. I'm impressed at the level of English some of the kids have there; the fact that we can talk in-depth about poetry really made me happy. (Example: Gwendolyn Brooks. Fairly simple language, but complicated concepts, and they were all over it.) Hopefully, ACT will continue the Poetry Club after we leave, and the group will continue to explore other poets and poetry in English; I can only hope.

Tuesday we got a tour of various rooms in the Hotel Tajikistan. This place is NICE. There are balconies with every room, and some of the suites are almost as big as my apartment! They also have a killer swimming pool, sauna, massage services, and a huge gym. They have a lower occupancy right now because so many visitors to Dushanbe would prefer to stay in the Hyatt and other places, which means if we get a room we'll also get a discount. On top of that, I've gotten to know some of the staff from using the WiFi in their lobby, so the discount will be even nicer. I think for the last night we will stay there because we have a 5:30am flight and don't want to bother the families at 3am to let us out, since Ramadan will be over and they'll (finally!) be sleeping at night again. I keep getting invitations from various people I've met to come visit them during Eid, and I don't think it's possible to make it to all of them. However, I am looking forward to visiting the family that day. Apparently, the party is sick.

In today's next edition, I'll be talking about going to Korvon again, gifting our family, and finding a REAL Italian restaurant in town. Oh yeah, and exams. Woo!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

S-Tay-Ruh-Hat: The last full weekend of the whole group

Friday night we went out for Joe's 32nd birthday. We'd seen a bowling place near one of the larger and more tucked away hotels in the area, and he decided he wanted to spend the evening there. We walked over around 9 and met up with other people from the program. Mina had invited a grounded Belgian military unit - their plane broke down on the way to Afghanistan; I don't know where she met them - as well as a few other people, so we had a lively international group going after a while. It was nice to have a large part of the group together again, especially since we all realized it was our last weekend with everyone in town.

The next day, we headed to our second day of rest (esteraahat) at Varzob. Varzob is about an hour away from the center of the city, a bit higher up in the mountains. We took a chartered bus, which made it over the thinnest bridge I have ever seen on a roadway. (Someone has a picture; I will try to get one. It was nerve-wracking, but we survived.) The house where we stayed for the day has two very large cots which are built over a section of a river. We also had access to a swimming pool, an unstocked bar, the most disgusting outhouses I have ever heard of (I refused to actually go and see for myself), and the surrounding area. Some of the people went hiking; others went swimming; I play GameBoy Color and chess. I thought about going to explore, but honestly, we'd been going strong for 10 weeks at that point without any breaks or rest and I was TIRED. Thankfully, Jill didn't have a camera that day and so she took pictures with mine. After lunch, I took a swim in the freezing cold pool, and then we headed back to town.

Sunday we all slept in, and then met at the school at 4-ish. (Actually, every time I list in here is an "ish" time, so just keep that in mind.) We went to the newest amusement park in the city, which everyone calls AquaPark but I'm pretty sure has a different name. At any rate, most of the park was shut down - restaurants because it's Ramadan, roller coasters and the ferris wheel because it's Dushanbe and they can - so we were basically stuck in the kids section. I thought that meant we were going to have a bad time and wasted our program fee. Oh, but wait:


So each attraction cost a number of Som to get on. They ranged from 2 Som to 10 Som. The bumper cars were 10 Som per go. Nodir Aqa had given us each 20 Som (thanks to me having 200 in 20's to change out for his 2 100's) and that went STRAIGHT to the bumper cars. We gathered a crowd because we're a bunch of Americans, and much of the group was speaking English (the part I don't like), but we had a great time and just rode twice since there was no wait for the ride while we were on it (the part I do like).

After bumper cars, we went to a haunted house, which turned out to be scarier because of the guy who worked there and led us through than the actual attractions. He stood really close and kept touching us trying to guide us in the right direction. If he would have just spoken Tajiki I could have translated. Oh well.

Afterward, we went back to bumper cars.

After bumper cars part 3, we decided to paddleboat before heading out. Bobo (Zac) and I got on one boat with one of the local program employees and her baby sister. (Bobo, where are the pictures of that adorable child?) We paddled around while singing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" which was one of the 10 songs that played in the park all day. I forgot how much hard work paddleboating is.

For dinner, we went to a Mexican restaurant which also had Italian food. We were all really excited that we finally found a place with real tacos and burritos...and we were all sorely disappointed. The burritos were not what you can get at home at all. To be fair, the chicken alfredo was actually pretty good, and the chicken empanadas were excellent, but everything else fell short. To be honest, the real issue was the spicing of the meat and the beans. I'd rename that style of food from Mexican to Mexijiki.

Nick and I returned to AquaPark to be with our host family, who had taken the kids there. We bummed around with them for a while and got some pretty good pictures before the park closed. I was happy that the kids got a chance to hang out in the park with us; they and we all had a good time. All in all, it was a fairly restful weekend.