Archive for July, 2009

(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.


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…



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…



Read Full Post »

In Khorog, I’m fairly cut off from news.  I don’t speak any of the three languages spoken here (Shugni, Tajik and Russian) and barely have phone reception or Internet access.   Honestly, living in the mountains in like living in a bubble.  You know there’s a world out there, but frankly you just don’t care.  It’s so peaceful.

So, I was surprised to read  a news story, sent from a friend, regarding a recent bombing in Dushanbe (sound bomb –  no casualties).  I shared the news with my co-workers.  They weren’t  too concerned about it.

The Afghans living just across the river (in the Badakshan, Rushan, Shughnan, Ishkashim, Wakhan, Zibak and Kuran-Munjan regions) are considered the spiritual brothers and sisters of the Pamiri people.  They are Ismailis (the same religion practiced by the Pamiris) and speak Shugni (as well as Dari which is a form of Farsi).    When the Soviets arrived, the border was closed and many families were separated for a generation.  People that had left to work on one side couldn’t get back to the other.  I’ll elaborate more on the Soviet era and the impact on Tajikistan in a future post.

I’ve got to admit, I’m pretty obsessed with crossing the river for a visit.  It’s so close.  I could literally throw a stone and hit it, which I haven’t yet attempted.  I have, however, waved to the guys building the roads into the side of the mountain across the river and hung my head out the window oogling the landscape at every opportunity.

So, no worries please.  Just keeping you up to date on what’s happening in this side of the world.


Read Full Post »

Traditional Pamiri clothing (camp)
Traditional Pamiri clothing (camp)



DPP_facebookdushanbesmallbatch20392  DPP_facebookdushanbesmallbatch40459

IMG_0175 (2)



Read Full Post »

The Twilight Zone

(Entry from July 12, 2009)

I had one of the strangest evenings of my life here the other night.  We were on a quest for food.  A few nights in Dushanbe and we’d had some pretty bad experiences with the local cuisine.  Tajiks use A LOT of oil when cooking…

Most of our meals had been pretty bad and we’d basically given up on eating all together.  No joke, I’d already lost five pounds.   We’d attempted to make our own meals which basically consisted of a lot of watermelon, nuts and dried fruit (the produce in Dushanbe is AMAZING!).  But fruit and nuts just weren’t cutting it.

Not wanting to judge an entire culture’s cuisine on a few bad restaurants, we decided to give it another shot before succumbing to hunger and the expat joint across the street serving spaghetti Bolognese.

We headed for a restaurant owned by a Tajik that was supposed to be Chinese-Euro fusion (OK not exactly local but owned by a local).  A little Russian, a little Tajik, a little Chinese.  I had my heart set on some chicken balls.

The restaurant was darkly lit and decorated with elaborate gold drapes and old crystal chandeliers.   Red and green strobe lights danced off the walls, Tajik music blasted in the background and a heavy layer of smoke hung in the room.   Only a few of the tables were full, a mix of Russian and Tajik customers.

Ordering food here is always an adventure. The menus are generally in Russian (sometimes Tajik but rarely in English).  Russian is not a language that you can try and decipher – you can either read it or you can’t.   We can’t.  And the waitress didn’t speak English, or much Tajik.

We have one person is our group who speaks Farsi/Tajik (and she has been an amazing asset). But even she was having a hard time figuring out the menu (she can’t read Tajik because they use the Cyrillic alphabet as opposed to the Arabic script used in Iran) and couldn’t communicate with the waitress very well.

In the end, I ordered chicken kebabs and rice.   There must have been some sort of miscommunication since I’d asked for a side of yogurt (similar to Indian Raita) but got ketchup instead.   And the rice never came, which was fine by me since the chicken had a nice layer of oil on it.  I cut my losses and washed it all down with a beer.

About half way through the meal, the music changed, the strobe lights got more intense and a petite Russian belly dancer stepped into the middle of the dance floor.   I haven’t seen a lot of belly dancing in my time, but I’m pretty sure that it isn’t usually done to Shakira.

At the table next to us, a group of Russians were on a double date.   The table was filled with food, beer and a couple bottles of vodka.  Not to mention about six packs of cigarettes.  They’d take a bite of their food, down a shot of vodka and take a puff of a cigarette. Another bite, another shot, another puff….

Once the music started they were up and on the dance floor.   I was quite fascinated by them.  There are quite a few Russians around but not as many as there used to be (most went to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union).

Regarding those that still live here, I’m interested in better understanding the relationship they have with Tajiks.   I’ve heard a lot of different things from Tajiks regarding Russia. In many ways, the situation for women was better under Soviet rule (more equal rights, less religious conservatism, etc).  All were educated, which is why the literacy rate in Tajikistan is so high (over 90%), jobs were available, food was abundant and the country was fairly developed.  Of course, there was racism and religious oppression as well.

After one week here, I don’t pretend to know much.    But it’s an interesting history.

Back to the Russians.  They found us quite entertaining.   Apparently in Russia my name is a boy’s name.  The girl version just doesn’t exist.   With broken Russian, I found out a little about them.  The men were on leave.  They’re in the Russian military.   Not the first time I’d bumped into Russian military in Tajikistan.   The women worked here.  And they knew and liked Canada.

At one point during our “conversation” one of the girls mentioned her love of Lenin.  The largest of the males stopped what he was saying, slide his finger across his throat and started laughing hysterically.   The stench of vodka was overpowering.  We didn’t hang  around to hear his views on the matter.  We’d had enough excitement for one evening.

We paid the bill (they’d added an extra $10 US charge for the entertainment….) and headed for the door.

At one point in the evening, sitting in that smoke filled room with oily chicken in front of me, a group of drunken Russians to my right and a belly dancer giving her all to Shakira on the dance floor, I started to laugh.  And I couldn’t stop.  I was in Tajikistan.  T-A-J-I-K-I-S-T-A-N.

And it felt like the twilight zone.

Read Full Post »

We spent our first night in Dushanbe in a hotel room that could have been Anna Karenina’s bed chamber.  20 foot ceilings, gold wall paper, red embroidered drapes, crystal chandeliers and rich dark wood furniture.  It was a fitting introduction to this country’s complex relationship with the former Soviet Union.   And, a great place to end up after a long a flight.   The hotel was out of our price range so after the first night we decided to rent a flat in the centre of town for the rest of the week.   It’s in a great location right in the centre of the action.

Dushanbe is a lovely city. Russian-colonial buildings line the streets and the architecture is quite beautiful.  Many buildings have been converted into spaces for stores (clothing, electronics etc.) filled with products from China (its neighbour to the east).  There are restaurants, cafes and a lot of outdoor spaces to cool down, socialize, have a drink and eat beef kebabs.

 There is a huge park near the apartment and at night it fills with families taking a break from the heat and enjoying the colourful water fountains.  Tajiks love their kids.    This is a culture that allows children to be children. Kids run around and do mischief but they are rarely chastised for being themselves.  I’ve noticed that the men here spend a great deal of time with their children.

 People are very gracious about having their pictures taken.  I think it’s because they don’t get a lot of tourists here.  I have found myself the subject of quite a few photos as well!    The people here are really friendly and  often approach me for conversation.   But it’s difficult communicating because most people don’t speak English.

A lot of people ask me where I’m from.  They usually assume I’m American but when I explain I’m Canadian they nod in acknowledgement.  I’ve given up on trying to explain where Jamaica is –  I’ve even tried throwing out Bob Marley but that usually gets me blank stares in reply.

The teenagers here are great.   We spent a day at a camp about an hour outside of Dushanbe.  It was 36C and by the time we got there I was sure  I was going to faint.  I don’t know how people function in this heat.   I lived in Uganda for 10 months so you’d think I’d be used to it…

The “camp” was housed in a former Russian hotel.   It’s built on the side of a river with mountains on every side.

 The kids were celebrating their final day at camp.  They had prepared a show and we were the guests of honour.  And what a show!  This was my first experience with Tajik (Pamiri Ismaili to be exact) cultural dance, poetry and song.   The traditional clothing is very colourful and the girls weave red ribbon through their hair.

Tajikistan is a fairly liberal country and even knowing this I was surprised to see how bold the boys were in asking the girls to dance.   It’s a striking difference from the other Muslim countries that I am familiar with.   The men here are quite friendly but respectful.  They pay women a lot of compliments.   I don’t blame them, the women here are breathtakingly beautiful!  I have never seen such beautiful shades of hair colour, from the deepest black to the lightest copper (and even some blondes and red heads!).   It doesn’t surprise me that many foreign men end up getting married here.

 To celebrate their final week at camp, a local band came to play.  They played modern Tajik music and the kids loved it.   They forced us to dance (they are amazing dancers!) and taught us some of their moves in exchange for some of our “American dance moves.”  I did my best to represent.  At one point, I found myself in a dance-off, surrounded by a group of 20 kids clapping.  It was a really great time.

The language barrier here is a real challenge.  I like being able to socialize with people but since I don’t speak Russian or Tajik (which is a form of Farsi) I have to rely on my Russian phrasebook.   I have spoken a bit of French though.  There are some French soldiers here and the occasional Tajik who has studied French.

 So far, I’ve spoken to several shop owners, Russian military, students and a nice older gentleman on the bus.   I have a new appreciation for Russian – it’s a tough language to read but it’s fairly easy to pronounce.   Tajik eludes me.  I will begin my Tajik language lessons next week and am excited to speak to people in their first language.  But, I won’t get much practice in Khorog, it’s a region where people speak another language, Shugni.  This is an oral language spoken by Pamiri people.  I wanted to stick to Tajik because it’s close to Dari (the language spoken in Afghanistan) and Farsi (Iran).  So I will likely get the chance to use it again.

Because of the heat, I’ve been spending quite a few hot afternoons at a coffee house across from our apartment.   I’m leaving for Khorog on Thursday where these small luxuries (espresso) will be unavailable, so I don’t feel too guilty about having a cappuccino (and air conditioning) here and there.

In the mornings and the late afternoons, I explore.  I love photography and haven’t been disappointed by the sights.    So far, I’m having a great time!

Read Full Post »

I’m not sure what you’ve heard (if anything) in your end of the world.  But there have been some recent troubles in Tajikistan.  Please no frantic emails – we are all safe!   If you are interested in learning more about it click here and here.

Read Full Post »

The flights from Toronto-> Amsterdam -> Istanbul went well. I had planned to use the eight hour layover in Istanbul as an opportunity to check out the city. Turkey is a country that I have always dreamed of visiting. Unfortunately, that plan was quickly halted by a miserable visa officer with a chip on her shoulder for Canadians. After waiting patiently in line, I’d planned to ask for a short-term visa to leave the airport. I barely got the words out before I was being verbally assaulted by this woman for daring to ask if there was anything other than a six-month $60 USD visa available. Americans and Europeans pay $20 USD for the same visa! She wasn’t interested in my question and told me to get out of line. I was flabbergasted but too exhausted to put up a fight. I’ve heard conflicting reasons for the discrepency in visa costs.  An American I met on the plane said that Canadians pay more because we recognize  the Armenian genocide.   I read online that we pay more because  it’s expensive for Turks to get Canadian visas.   Whatever the reason, I wasn’t prepared to pay $60 US for an eight hour excursion. Instead, I took a much needed nap in the airport lounge.

After my nap, I bumped into a human rights lawyer (who could have been a fashion model) from Copenhagen on his way to Dushanbe for a conference on fair judicial trials and pre-trial rights of the accused. I also met three young chaps from the UK on their way to Dushanbe to start a bike trip that would take them across Tajikistan. A challenging adventure considering that Tajikistan is 93% mountainous!

The flight from Istanbul to Dushanbe was fairly bumpy (luckily, Turkish Air has an open bar policy). The minute we boarded the plan a hundred pair of eyes were on us. And I have to admit, I was staring back. What an interesting group of people. The ethnic diversity of the people on the flight was incredible. I imagine we also looked quite the spectacle – exhausted, loaded down with cameras and backpacks and books – we also didn’t smell that great. I sat beside a really interesting gentleman from Bulgaria. He speaks five languages! Kazak, Bulgarian, Russian, Turkish and English. I admit I don’t have a strong grasp of Bulgarian history and was surprised to learn that his family has Turkish ancestry. Many Bulgarians do. He was born in Bulgaria, moved to Russia then Germany and now lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan and runs a small machinery company. He told me of his plans to live in Ethiopia one day and his love of music (he saw The Wailers perform in Germany). He taught me the Russian words for beer =piva and wine = vino – both of which we sampled on the way to Dushanbe. I don’t know much about Bulgarians but they seem to enjoy their liquor almost as much as the Russians. Ah the Russians –more on them to come!

We finally arrived in Dushanbe at 4 am on the 9th. We’d left at 6pm on the 7th. As soon as I walked off the plane I felt peaceful. The air was clean and warm but not humid. There was a lightness to it and I felt myself drifting into the pace of life that often characterizes developing countries. The driving conditions quickly brought me out of that reverie and reminded me of the other thing that often characterizes developing countries – creative driving. Apparently in Tajikistan green means Go Fast, amber means Go and red means Go Slow. I’m still trying to determine if these rules change depending on the time of day or the number of police around. Needless to say, at 5 am there were very few people out and about.   But compared to Uganda this is a very orderly place.   The buses  have designated bus stops (but you can still flag them down) and there are pedestrian cross-walks!

My first impressions driving into the city from the airport: Clean, wide and well-paved streets lined with tall, beautiful trees. Fresh, fresh air. And Soviet style buildings – some are quite opulent.

Read Full Post »

I leave tomorrow.  I feel sick to my stomach.   Today is the first time I’ve had a chance to actually worry about leaving. OK, that’s not entirely true…  It’s been a roller-coaster of anxiety.  But today I feel especially consumed with worry. Probably because this is the first time I’ve had the chance to actually think.   I’ve spent the past week running around trying to prepare for departure.   I’ll make my third and final trip to MEC today.  Scan all my important docs. Finally try to figure out how to use wordpress features aside from Post and Publish.    Pack.   Oh God, pack.

At this point whatever I don’t have, I don’t need and I’ll survive without or curse myself for forgetting.   I may not have clue as to what awaits me but I do have $50 long underwear that pulls the sweat away from my body and pair of kick-ass hiking boots.

Wow. I’m going to Tajikistan.



Read Full Post »

I’ve spent the past month at boot camp.  30 days of intensive training on inter-cultural relations, conflict management, participatory development,  capacity building, project management –  the list goes on.   It was nice to finally gain some concrete skills for working in the field and spending time with colleagues with similar interests.     But, the best part of the training sessions were the guest lectures.

To hear the personal stories of people who have spent their lives working in this field was incredibly inspiring.    No 30-day boot camp, no formal education on development, no guide books – just a backpack, a map and a plane ticket and off they went. Imagine Africa, South East Asia, India in the 60s, 70s, 80s.    Before Internet, CIA country reports, MEC.   The first international development workers – given a destination and a goal and that’s about it.   What an adventure – it makes what I’m about to embark on seem tame and totally manageable in comparison.

I have to admit, I was riveted while they recounted their adventures – we all were.  A tiny glimpse into our futures.  And they didn’t sugar-coat their experiences. They spoke of the hardships of working in this field, the impact on personal relationships, the frustration of dealing with bureaucracies and the problems with development.    They spoke of professional failures and personal mistakes. The isolation of living abroad and the stress of working in conflict and post-conflict zones.  The suffereing, the pain, the misery.  And the hope.

Perhaps one of the most interesting conversations was one regarding the role of  younger aid workers just starting out their careers.  The trend of sending Westerners to developing countries to “do development” is shifting.  NGOs are employing locals with knowledge of the context and membership in the communities.   It’s an essential shift and one that should be strongly supported.   But it raises questions for the next generation of aid workers and our role in this field.  I think part of my journey will be figuring out what my role will/can be.

Read Full Post »

My plan is to work my way around  the world.

First stop:  Khorog, Tajikistan (otherwise known as the roof of the world).

I will spend the next eight months working in disaster-risk reduction (DRR) as a Monitoring & Evaluation Officer for an NGO. And of course, I’ll take every opportunity to travel in this fascinating corner of the world.

I decided to write this blog mostly because I love reading them.    I’ve come to really look forward to the ramblings of virtual strangers living in countries I’ve always wanted to visit, and sharing their intimate moments and personal reflections.  Following their adventures reminds me of all there is out there waiting to be experienced.  Those personal stories have gone a long way in inspiring me to embark on my own journey.

Read Full Post »