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Re-entry


So there you have it – I went to Haiti.  Unfortunately, I didn’t end up writing there. But, I plan on writing at my next posting.  And where is that? Good question.  Right now, I’m in Toronto. I decided to go domestic for a year and see what normal life is like.

I spent the summer lying in parks and riding my bike – an amazing change from Port-au-Prince where walking is off limits for most NGOers.   It’s been 3 weeks since I started my new job and I’m already bored. Not a good sign.  The job itself is great (I work for a non-profit  as a Program Manager – not an INGO so I don’t get to leave the country…)

The problem is me.  I’m different. What I find interesting and engaging has changed. Or perhaps, I’ve always been this way but I am just more aware of it now.  I can appreciate why it’s amazing to be able to work 7.5 hours a day instead of 10 or 12, meet friends for drinks, or grab some sushi, effortlessly stream endless TV shows and download movies, feel safe, feel free, visit family regularly, go shopping, buy stuff you don’t need. 

What I can’t wrap my head around is how I’m supposed to live with not leaving the country more than once a year (and for only TWO WEEKS!), not meeting anyone new in months, not obsessing about my work (It’s engaging but not at the levels I’m used to….), not going on RnR, not feeling deprived of everything I love and then feeling  insanely appreciative to experience it all again….

By the time I left Haiti I was DONE. I was tired, burnt-out, frustrated, confused –  and not sure if I wanted to do this work anymore.  By the end, I was dreaming of normal life and all it had to offer.  Now that I have it. I’m  not sure that I’m going to make it to Christmas. There are moments when I am seriously tempted to pack up my bags and jump on the next plane to anywhere.  

I’m wondering if I’m in a rehab of sorts  – suffering from withdrawal from my old life  and need time to re-acclimatize to normal.                  

As if normal is a place….     

11 months to go….Wish me luck.

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Aaaannd………………… I’m back!

I apologize for neglecting this blog.   It’s report writing season.   The whole office has been a sea of tension and stress.   Apparently, this happens every fall.  Donors expect reports from Project Managers.   Project Managers expect reports from  Project Coordinators.  Project Coordinators expect reports from staff etc. etc. etc.   

Roxy and I have been up to our ears in M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation)  reports.   Apart from the major one that we’ve been working on for the past 3 months (which has involved evaluating a ton of projects across the region) we got slammed with a few others in between.  

In my last post I mentioned how happy I was to be back in the office. Ya, well that lasted about a day.  Writing this report has reminded me of the joy I experienced while writing my  Master’s research paper.  Those of you who had the pleasure of being in my company during those heinous six months will likely remember it well…. 

This report was tough  but  incredibly rewarding.  C ondensing 3 months of interviews, focus groups, surveys etc. into a 50 page beast of a report complete with recommendations was a real challenge.  In all, we’d consulted over 400 people in the past 3 months for this evaluation, so we had a lot of data and a lot of ideas.   

It took 14 days of writing,  2 jars of Golden Roasted Instant Coffee, an area heater (it’s damn cold here), a kilo of cold schwarma and my top playlist (a little Joss/Asa/Adele/Bedouin/MGMT/Alicia, MJ, Ottis, Barry, Ray and a LOT of motown etc.) on repeat –  but we got it done.   And then collapsed with exhaustion.   

But, after a few days of recovery – i.e. the entire first season of “How I met your Mother” and a couple  bottles of cheap Moldavian red. 

I am back in business ;)

 I’ve got a lot of updates and will likely inundate you with a ton of blog posts  over the next week.   But first, I want to share some of my pics from my field trip to Murghab district.  

Wow.  What a place.  Aside from Afghanistan, this was definitely the highlight of my travels to date.  The vastness of this district, the culture, the people and the sheer sense of wonderment  you feel  in the midst of it all, is truly incredible. 

A little history on Murghab:

With a population of 4,000, Murghab is the only significant town in the eastern half of the Autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan Oblast region of Tajikistan (I live in Khorog in the southern half).   It is the highest town in Tajikistan (and of the former Soviet Union) at 3,650 m above sea level and is located at the junction of the Murghab River and the Pamir Highway.  The Pamir Highway (along the Silk Road) goes north to Osh in Kyrgyzstan (and into China) and southwest to the region’s capital Khorog.    Murghab is home to ethnic Kirgyz people, they are Sunni Muslims and speak Kirgyz (same language spoken in Kyrgyzstan) and Russian.  Interestingly, the majority do not speak Tajik.  They are semi-nomadic and have ancient ties to Mongolia.

It’s a 6 hour jaw-dropping drive  from Khorog to Murghab.    I had my face plastered to the window the entire ride – the scenery was incredible and constantly changing.   At first the landscape was green with black mountains-   the higher up we’d go the drier and more vast it became –  the mountains turned from black to brown and the landscape from green and lush to sandy and rocky, dotted with deep blue lakes.   In certain places, I felt as though I was on Mars or better yet, in a scene from  Jurassic Park – a truly fantastical place (yes, that is a word – I checked ;)  

Check it out:

 

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Two women strolling down the road.
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My first meal in Murgab was fried fish with nan (bread), served by this Kirgyz woman in her yurt (house). Delicious.

 

    

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A lot of tourists bike the Silk Road through Tajikistan. It’s incredibly challenging but beautiful. I met a traveller that had biked from as far off as Italy! He looked exhausted but exhilarated and had a great pair of legs ;)
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I stayed with this family while in Murgab. Look at those cheeks!

 

 

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The majority of Kirgyz have Asian features with beautiful  light green, golden and dark brown eyes .   As much as I was curious and stared in wonder at the people I saw.  I also got stared at a lot in return.    My features and “faux” hawk hair style attracted a lot of attention. But interestingly, people rarely ask about my ethnic background in Tajikistan.  They are generally a lot more curious about my nationality and my relgion.  

It’s a nice change.

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Our organization built a debris flow wall in this village. It’s to protect the community from debris (water, mud, rocks) that washes down the mountain during the rainy season (there are no trees to slow down the debris at this altitude). Debris flow is extremely dangerous -especially in this region – it can wipe out crops, homes and buildings such as this beautiful mosque.
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Horses are an important part of the culture here as opposed to other parts of Tajikistan.

 

 

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Modiyon village: it feels as though it is at the end of the world – horses munching on grass by the river, magnificent mountains in the background- a truly idyllic setting. I spent two days in this village interviewing community members. As the Kirgyz are semi-nomadic and the region so vast, there are many villages with only 10 or 15 households (6-7 people per household). In this village there were 12 households.

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 I had the pleasure of having lunch at this woman’s house. Not much grows in Murghab (due to the altitude) and the main staples are Yak yogurt, Yak milk, Yak butter and Yak  (and the occasional goat/sheep dish ;)    I had a yak soup (tastes like beef) which basically consisted of water, oil and small pieces of meat with nan (bread) and butter.   Normally, I love yogurt.  But the idea of eating fermented yak milk that hadn’t been refrigerated  defeated me.   By the end of the trip, I knew how to say:  “Thank you but I am lactose intolerant” in Kirgyz. 

This woman’s husband is one of the leaders of the village.   During lunch he kept kissing me on the head and calling me daughter.  At first, I thought it was just Kirgyz hospitalityin over drive…but then some wise words that my friend D* had given me a while back came bubbling to the surface.  He said and I quote:   “If someone’s acting a bit strange, chances are they are drunk.” 

It was lunch time so it  hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility – but once again D* was right on.   Never one to kill a buzz – I rolled with it.    And had a great time.   

I have to say that the hospitality of the people in this district is incredible.   Most people have little to give but you would never know it,  since they offer you everything they have. Guests are truly honored here and considered a blessing.   It honestly puts us to shame back home.   Our grudging hospitality with timelines and restrictions can’t even compare.   

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I met this little girl a couple of hours up the mountain from Modiyon (which is a couple of hours from the centre of Murghab town). Very isolated. There are three families that live up there and with the help of an NGO they’ve built a greenhouse (lack of vitamins from fruits/veggies is a big problem here) and developed their hot springs. The springs were amazing!

 

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Check out this hat.  I love it. I bought two of them.  Totally rockable in  Montreal.  The shopping in Murghab was really great. Although, admittedly, I can find great shopping pretty much anywhere.   But the carpets and wool knits are really nice.   The traditional clothing in Murghab is also quite different from the rest of the GBAO.   Aside from these hats, they wear leather moccasins with specially fitted goloshes.  The idea is that when you are going outside you slip on the goloshes and when you come back inside you remove them and have your moccasins to wear around the house.  The protection of boots with the comfort of slippers!   As a lover of  slippers, and all things that keep me warm in general, I think it’s brilliant!  

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 Being in Murghab you realize that the people here live and work in difficult conditions and an extremely harsh climate.    In the winter the temperature in Murghab drops below  -35C  –    giving even Montreal a run for its money ( minus the central heating of course).    

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As there are no trees at this altitude there is also no shade to speak of.  The sky was the bluest sky that I have ever seen.  The sun was unforgiving and relentless.   The heat was intense during the day but also very dry.  At night, the temperature drops signficantly and the dryness of the air makes it hard to  sleep.   The people here, especially the children, suffer from skin damage from years of constant sunburns.  It gives them the appearance of having permanent rosy cheeks and dark leathery skin.  

 

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This amazing spot took two hours to get to from Modiyon.   And what a ride. 

Roxy, Tohir (engineer), Akbar (driver) and I, loaded into a rickety old relic from the Soviet era – known as a UAZ jeep and hit the road.   As previously mentioned, I have a tendency to get car sick.  However,  my body was too racked with fear to even worry about feeling nauseous.   I honestly thought that I was going to die – at least twice.  

 The gravel “road”- and I use this term loosely- was carved into the side of the mountain.  Apparently, the key to not skidding to your death on gravel is to drive as fast as possible. Akbar, a true professional, was roaring down the “road”   at 65Km  an hour.   Having a professional driver is essential  here  –  and it’s a job that requires  a lot skill (and  a lot of guts).     It’s life and death on some of these roads.  

The scenery – when I ventured a look- was beautiful: green valleys and jagged mountains with the occasional horse or herdsman.   The river was gorgeous (see above), carving its way through the mountains as it has been  since the beginning of time.   

We spent the night here and Roxy and I took advantage of the hot springs.  Tajikistan has a ton of hot springs and mineral water sources.  It’s customary when driving through the districts to pull over to fill up your water bottle with spring water.  Most springs have signs posted next to them that explain what they cure –  heart disease, poor circulation and arthritis are common ones.  But you name it – there is a spring for it.  

It was a beautiful place to spend a couple of days.  And aside from the flea colony that I brought back to my house as a souvenir, I had a wonderful time here.

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 The land goes on forever.   A lone house at the base of a mountain will appear out of nowhere  and then nothing for hours.   I can’t imagine what it would be like to live miles away from my nearest neighbor and civilization for that matter.       

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The majority of Kirgyz live in Murgab during the winter and move to the pastures in the summer to graze their animals. While in the pastures they live in traditional yurts – which are essentially mobile homes.  These can be collapsed and then reassembled.

 

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Churned butter

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The latrine.

 

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  The view from the latrine.

 

 

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I don’t know if it’s because you feel like you are actually IN the sky, or because there  is almost no light at night….But, the stars shine brighter here than any other place I have ever been….It’s incredibly humbling.

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 in no specific order:

I’ve developed a love for Golden Roasted Nescafe Instant coffee – an amazing feat considering I rarely drank brewed coffee before coming to TJK  (I’m a tea girl).   I drink three cups a day – sometimes with cocoa – and I’ll probably get an ulcer before I leave.  

****

I went to visit the doctor last week.  I’d finally had it with the 60 or so bites on my body and needed some answers.  I’d tried self-diagnosing and had determined through a careful process of elimination that I had worms.     Bed bugs just didn’t fit the symptoms: the bites weren’t in a neat little line and they were swelling up.  And I’d read that a possible symptom of worms was itchy bite-like bumps.  Rachel – my go to with anything medical related because she’s the only one on a health-related fellowship  – was not convinced.   So, before heading to the pharmacy for de-worming meds, I decided to put the “Lonely Planet – Diagnose yourself – Healthy living Africa” book down – this was Central Asia after all – and visit the doctor. 

The doctor, a lovely Pamiri woman, took one look at me and said:  “kike!”    Well, she said a lot more than that – but kike was the one word that she kept repeating.  She didn’t speak English so she decided to bring  in a couple of  the doctors that had been lurking in the doorway hoping to get in on the action.  After a second and third opinion it was confirmed –I had something called kike.    Since the other two doctors also couldn’t communicate with me- I still had no idea what it was.   All I could get from them was that I didn’t have to wash my clothes and it would go away.  She wrote me a prescription and I was on my way. 

And what is KIKE you ask?  Good question – it took me another two days to figure out that it was fleas.     It seems that I had brought some souvenirs back with me from Murghab (a remote town six hours from Khorog near the Kyrgyzstan border).   

Apparently in six weeks, one flea can turn into about a hundred billion and take over every piece of fabric in your room. In the land of carpets and yak wool that’s a lot of coverage.    Looking back, it explains why I had woken up with new bites every day.  I’m an idiot for not taking care of it sooner but after my trip to Murghab I’d made another trip to the field – this time to Darvaz (5 hours in the other direction – down the mountains on the way to Dushanbe).  There, I had spent a  night in the village with one eye open, banging my hand against the floor trying to keep the mice at bay,  while cowering in my sleeping bag counting down the minutes until daylight (our beds were located on the floor and directly in front of the kitchen….).   

But that’s another story.  The point, is that I figured I’d just picked up more bed bugs from that evening.   

But after six weeks of being dinner – my nerves were frayed, I was feeling tired (probably from all of the poison in my body) and grumpy (because I wasn’t getting any sleep).   I’d seen a doctor but still didn’t know what kike meant. I’d applied the bright green liquid that they’d given me, but  I was still getting eaten alive.  

I finally went to see a doctor friend of Rachel’s who spoke Enlish and after a two minute examination explained that I had flea bites.  “They call it kike in Tajiki.”

Hallelujah! 

 My landlady – bless her heart – came to my rescue and took everything out of my room.  From the bed, to the carpets (and I’ve got 3), to my slippers.   It all had to go.    It turns out, that through our limited communication, the first doctor assumed that  since I’d encountered the kike staying in  Murgab…the problem would have remained there.  To my detriment – not at all the case.    

I moved in with Persia for a couple of nights.   She was ecstatic to have me…I had to remove all of my clothing and change into a pair of her pink PJs before being allowed to enter her room.  The poor girl could barely sleep for fear of touching me and catching it (fleas don’t live on the human body- but she wasn’t convinced).  I finally moved back into my room this weekend.  I’m still waiting for most of my clothes but I have a bed and no more bites so I’m pretty much in heaven. 

 ****

We have a mouse.   We can hear it dancing the mamba in our walls at night. It’s pretty gross.  I envision it crawling all over our dishes and snacking on our food.   So, I’ve laid down a strict –  no food allowed anywhere in the house –  policy which pretty much serves to simultaneously annoy my roommate and give me an ulcer when someone leaves something lying around (including myself!).   I never realized how anal I can be.  I always thought that I was very easy going…..ha.  I’m learning a lot about myself on this journey let me tell you.

In order to rid the house of our new friends.    We – correction – our landlady has laid down a trap.   It’s in the kitchen.  She put bread in the trap.  People love bread here.  It’s  treated with a great deal of respect – you aren’t allowed to throw it away. I dropped a piece on the ground once and there was a collective gasp around me.  I quickly picked it up, kissed it and apologized profusely.  But, apparently, it’s ok to put in mouse traps…I’m still  learning the rules…

Persia and I have both agreed that if we were a mouse we wouldn’t go near stale bread.  So, I’ve since added homemade honey and nuts to the concoction, which aside from leaving a nasty mess, seems to be doing the job.   

We now live is a state perpetual fear and hope.   Hope, that we’ll catch it and fear that we’ll have to actually see it happen.   We can’t even enter the kitchen without first checking from the staircase if there is something in the trap.   To date, we’ve given ourselves at least a couple of heart attacks- thinking we see a dark shadow and imagining that the mouse is there, or washing the dishes and feeling something brush against our feet.   

It’s been quite a drama let me tell you. 

 *** 

 I’m back in the office and out of the field.  But I can’t complain.   I love the field.  It’s the best part of the job – but it’s exhausting – especially the distances that we drive and the type of work that we do.   We’ve spent the past six weeks crisscrossing the region, hiking up mountains to visit projects, interviewing communities and holding meetings with stakeholders.  It’s really a great job.  But I’m excited to summarize their thoughts and transform the information that we’ve collected into solid recommendations for this project.

The report is due at the end of October and if I can just stop procrastinating  – by doing research on the amazing trip that I’m planning at the end of this fellowship (an epic journey!) – and get to the actual writing, I’ll be happy. 

So much more to tell you but that’s it for now.

Looking forward to some email updates on your lives as well.  :P

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The Civil War

In 1992, the civil war broke out.  The causes of this war were complex and relate to some extent to the ethnic and regional tensions that emerged from the formation of the new Soviet Republic in 1924 (once again artificial lines on a map – created by outside forces – lead to conflict!) and to premature attempts to liberalize the Tajik political system.  

At the end of the Soviet period, power in Tajikistan was tightly guarded by representatives of the Leninabad district in the North.  Other regions of Tajikistan were demanding:  equal participation in the political process; and the communist party to abandon its monopoly on political power, in favor of a multiparty system.

The refusal to share power coupled with a lack of political maturity on the part of the opposition- led to civil war.

The war was devastating.  

It compounded the economic disruption caused by the break-up of the Soviet system and the people of GBAO  (the Pamirs) and Karategin/Rasht found themselves virtually isolated from the outside world.   People were starving.   The mountainous terrain that protected them from the majority of the violence also contributed to their inability to access food. 

Many had lost family members during the war and the country was crippled economically.  Jobs were almost impossible to find. Public services, like schools and hospitals were in a shocking state and business nearly non-existent.  The feeling of unease was perverse –with gunmen openly walking the streets, murder, robbery and kidnapping rampant.  Gas , electricity and water were often cut and the winters long, dark and cold.

20,000 people died (of a population of 5 million) and around one in ten had fled their homes. 

The organization that I work for is well respected in this region not only for the projects that they currently fund but for the humanitarian assistance they provided during the war.     The crisis was largely ignored by the rest of the international community: few had heard of Tajikistan and many considered it Russia’s problem.   

Help was not on its way.


Peace

In 1997, a peace agreement was reached.  And to date, the peace process had been very successful. A result of the war has been a push for promoting cultural pluralism.  

The economic situation in Tajikistan remains the most precarious of all of the Republics, however, the high level of literacy and the secular education achieved under the Soviet Union coupled with the political maturity of the parties since the 1997 peace agreement, offers hope that Tajikistan will prove more stable than its neighbors.   

 
The People of the Pamirs

The Pamirs has been mostly protected from outside influence and occupation due to its isolated geophraphic location.   This mountainous area, a large part of which is located in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, is one of the most inaccessible in the world.  

Local tradition holds that the Pamirian people descended from the leaders of Alexander the Great’s invading army, who reached the area in fourth century B.C. 

This may in part be true but their ethnicity can also be traced to the tribes that lived in Eastern Iran.  Today, the Pamiris live in southern Central Asia, primarily in southeastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan.

The Pamiris are not a homogeneous group.  They are composed of people who speak the Pamiri languages, (some are quite similar, others not easily understood among the different groups) the indigenous languages of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan region and in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province in Tajikistan, and adhere to the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam (followers of the Aga Khan).  Aside from the Kyrgyz-speaking people in Murgab (more on this later) most people that live in the GBAO are Ismaili.

The Pamiris share close linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the people in Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan, the Sarikoli speakers in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County in Xinjiang Province in China, the Wakhi speakers in Afghanistan and the Wakhi speakers in Upper Hunza Gojal region of Northern mountainous areas of Pakistan.

During the Tajikistan Civil War from 1992–1997 the Pamiris were targeted for massacres, especially those living in the capital Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa Oblast.

In the early 1990s there was a movement amongst Pamiris to separate Gorno-Badakhshan from Tajikistan. This did not happen but the Pamirs remain an autonomous region of Tajikistan (you need a visa to get in).

 

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(entry from July 14, 2009)

The Russians left more behind than a proud but crippled nation, rusted tanks and decrepit buildings.  Despite having a predominantly Muslim population, Tajiks  (my Pamiri friend has just corrected me on this) Pamiris drink vodka.  Under the Soviets, vodka became somewhat socially acceptable and regularly makes an appearance at Pamiri meals (if there are guests present) and gatherings (weddings/parties/celebrations).

From what I’ve observed, Pamiris drink vodka like the Russians:  a bottle, shot glasses and a steely resolve to get the job done.  Guests are considered a special honour  and are often celebrated with shots of vodka.   In Tajikistan, the unspoken rule is that everyone drinks until the guest refuses.  Guests  (especially foreigners trying  not to offend) tend to be hard-wired to accept rather than refuse offerings, which can lead to some very drunken gatherings.

On a serious note, men tend to drink a lot more than women and in some communities alcoholism has become a societal problem (so has heroine use but more on this later).

I’m not a connoisseur of vodka – I much prefer a glass of red to hard liquor-but I am one to throw myself into a new cultural experience.

And this time, I nearly drowned.

After a long day of picture-taking, Rachel (roommate) and I were aching for a break from the sun.   We found a nice terrace, filled with people sitting under parasols and enjoying the spray of the water fountains.   Tall pints of cold DRAFT beer and bottles of vodka dotted the tables.

Off to the side was a huge barbecue serving up delicious looking shashleek (beef kebabs on a skewer).

I was sold.

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En route to a free table by the fountain, we eyed a group of expats with twice the number of pints as people at their table.  A quick exchange of eye contact and we were invited to join them.  Turns out they were from England.

Now, I hate to judge but I have yet to have an encounter with an expat from the UK that did not descend into a drunken mess.   This has not, however, stopped me from looking forward to these random encounters.  They are a hilarious people the Brits  –  and they know how to have a good time!   They also have no limits and an extremely high tolerance for all types of alcohol.

A generalization I have yet to have proven wrong.

These three young chaps in their mid-20s managed a mining company about six hours outside of Dushanbe.  Yup, miners – interesting company for two development workers, I know.

They’d spend two weeks in the mountains and then four days in Dushanbe.   One of them – a handsome brown-eyed, blonde with a great tan matched by an equally great smile – had been in Tajikistan for over a year and planned to stick around for another year or so.

I’m not sure how it came up but at one point – somewhere between round 2 and 3 of the local brew- we mentioned that we hadn’t tried the local vodka.   This was met with looks of incredulity, another round of pints, a bottle of vodka (quickly downed and replaced), and a tray full of shashleek (beef kebabs).  According to the Brit to my right – they were beginning to blur into one being- it was customary to take a shot of vodka, followed by a piece of shashleek.  I’m not quite sure where the beer fit into that equation…

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This went on… And on… And on…And at some point, with the sun going down, four full pints of beer on the table in front of me, the remnants of cold shashleek to my right and my dear friend Rachel- head in hands – moaning to my left, I realized that it was time to make a discreet exit.

By then, two out of the three Brits had mysteriously disappeared (they’d had a head start on the festivities).   And I was having some difficulty deciding on the best course of action. Tajikistan. Public place. Early evening. Rachel = a mess. Me = holding it together, barely.  Home?  Good question …where was that again?!…

I decided to prolong serious decision-making for the time being and started feeding Rachel glasses of water.   I left  the remaining Brit in charge of this duty to make a third trip to the bathroom – I also made some calls – I needed back-up.

I don’t know how long I was gone. I got distracted by the fried chicken served at the fast food joint across the street.  But when I got back, our roommates had shown up (somehow I`d communicated our location), the final miner had disappeared and Rachel….well… apparently, we’d given her too much water…

 

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