Archive for August, 2009

Navigating the office environment is fairly easy at home.  Understanding and respecting the cultural taboos and norms comes naturally.   

Here, however, I likely do something to offend someone in the office on a daily basis. People are generally just too polite to say anything.

 My office has two cleaning ladies – one on the main floor and one on the second floor.   They don’t speak English but we say hello and even joke around – as well as you can with sign language and expressive facial expressions. 

Yesterday, I noticed that  the cleaning lady on my floor was giving me the cold shoulder. 

I tend to interact with her a fair bit since there is usually no water in the office and I drink mad amounts of coffee and usually need to use the bathroom at least twice a day.   No water = no toilets.    I’ll do the – I really gotta go dance – and she’ll magically appear with a huge bucket of water.  

 Those of you who’ve traveled a lot or lived in the developing world (where water shortrages are common-place) know that dumping a large quantity of water into the bowl from a high enough distance makes the toilet flush.

Anyway,  yesterday she barely acknowledged me.  And she’s usually quite friendly. 

So it got me thinking  – what did I do now ?  

Roxy – my colleague – happened to mention to me the other day that Tajiks seperate their garbage.    Apparently, a lot of people around here own animals – cows, goats etc., – which  I was actually pretty surprised to learn  considering that we live in a town and not a village.   I’ve lived here for two months and never so much as heard a mooh.   

Where would you even keep a cow?  We live in houses and apartments…  

But last week, I was walking down Lenin Street – on my way to the park- minding my own business and a brown cow strolled right past me.  No  joke.   Down the middle of the street – and straight into oncoming traffic – without a care in the world. 

Anyway, the point of the two garbage system is to seperate the food for animals from regular waste.  But no one tells you these things – you’re just supposed to know them.   Persia and I have been dumping all of our garbage together for the past two months- we leave it outside and the landlady’s kids take it to the dump.    A couple nights ago we discovered that the kids had been secretly seperating our garbage!  Roxy confirmed that in fact it’s a great insult to waste food here – especially when animals could eat it.  

Putting all of this together, my cleaning lady’s cold shoulder finally made sense. Last week, I had thrown some mouldy raising and nuts in the garbage – along with regular paper.  I wasn’t even thinking – just tossed it in the pail. 

She was quite offended.  But I’ve since apologized and we are back on good terms.

And Persia and I, now have a two garbage pail sytem (sorry still no recycling –    non-existent here).

I can only imagine what I’ll do  to offend tomorrow.


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Where to begin.The flight from Dushanbe was one of the most intense experiences of my life.  No joke. I thought I was going to die at least twice.  I’m not particularly known for my calm under pressure but even the most avid adventurer would have said a little prayer before getting on that flight.

As soon as you get in you are strapped down, passed a pair of gigantic earphones and a paper bag.  I tend to get motion sickness and in all the excitement had forgotten to take my extra-strength gravol. There is a 15 pound weight limit to get on the flight and my bags were a bit over the limit….

The security guys  at the airport refused to budge on the rules (not even by a pound!).  Tajikistan has a lot of rules – a relic from the Soviet Era – but that’s another post.   Anyway, the gravol  ended up packed and on its way to Khorog via land cruiser.

When the heli took off  it hovered in mid-air before making a hard left and starting its ascent. It’s amazing how maneuverable they are – when it turns it actually turns on its side.  Hence, the necessity of being strapped in.

It’s nuts.

As you can probably tell – this was my first time on a helicopter.  And what a strange sensation – you can feel every single bump and its VERY loud.   Admittedly, I’m used to having my air travel coated with a pleasant feeling of motionlessness –  chased down by a strong drink.   And this experience was the exact opposite of that.

A) no booze allowed.

B) even if there was booze you wouldn’t want to drink it (Oh, the stomach)

C)  I was aware of every moment:  every sound; every bump; every air pocket; every hover.


Once we were in the air for about 15 minutes, I started to relax a bit.   Big mistake..  Up until then we’d been cruising through open air.  Nothing in the way but clouds.   At one point, patting myself on the back for being so brave – I ventured a look out the front window and was rewarded with enormous mountain peaks looming in front of me.


The Pamir mountains are a mountain range in Central Asia formed by the junction of the Himalayas, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges. They are among the world’s highest mountains and since Victorian times they have been known as the “Roof of the World”.


There are two ways to get to Khorog – you can drive for 12 hours ( a beautiful journey across the country) or you can go by air (commercial flight or helicopter –  1hour).  The helicopter is known to be the safest of the two flying options.  That whole maneuverability aspect.

Both are insane.

During the Soviet  Era, the pilots were paid danger pay to fly this route.  Thankfully, its safety record isn’t bad: one flight went down in the 1980s, and that was hit by a rocket from neighbouring Afghanistan (slim chance of that happening now – what with the war and all…).    Since then, “tales abound about the crazy turbulance,  snow-scraping near misses and rubber-shredding landings.”

As we approached the mountain peaks, I started to feel a bit uneasy.  The pilot does this three times a week.  He’s a highly trained expert who is used to flying around royalty, dignataries and diplomats.  Unfortunately, the highest ranked individual in the heli was me – a lowly intern.   I figured if he was going to drop the ball – this might be the day….

I think the pilot’s assitant could tell that I was a bit nervous – he kept looking at me, giving me the thumbs-up sign and grinning like an baboon.   I loved him for it.

The pilots' assistant

The most terrifying part of the flight is last the 20 minutes.  There are some very narrow  (read: deadly) mountain passes to get through.   And helicopter pilots have a lot to worry about – air pockets, altitude – and other techincal jargon.

The point is –  it takes some serious concentration and skill.    And A LOT of hovering.

At times, we were just hovering in mid-air as the pilot  attempted to shimmy (yes, SHIMMY!)  the craft through 35 meter-wide mountain passes.   That doesn’t leave a lot of room on either side.  I could see black sand on the peaks shimmering in the sun – not just patches of dirt –  but individual GRAINS of sand.   That’s how close we were.

And lots of snow.

And jagged edges.

 And it was incredible.

DSC00841And beautiful.

In between the mountains, I could see green valleys with villages built on the edges of the bluest rivers.   You can’t help but feel the ancientness of the place.  People have been living in these valleys – in this remote part of the world – for thousands of years.


That said, I am planning a trip back by car.

Not because I’m scared   – and I am – but because the drive is supposed to be an adventure through shallow lakes and winding mountain roads.

Lots of gravol.

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A good friend of mine, Zahra, is currently working with an Indian NGO in Jaipur.   Over the next six months her work will take her across the country to assess projects and visit marginalized communities.

Her most recent post (http://india.zahraesmail.com/2009/08/the-excluded/) is a stirring account of her latest trip to the field to visit families living “Below the Poverty Line (BPL) and families that are largely marginalized and belong to the Scheduled Caste / Schedule Tribe (SC/ST) or Other Backward Caste (OBC)”.

We hear a lot about the poverty (and the wealth) in India.  But even the most informed among us will be disturbed by what Zahra describes in her post.


Update from me – coming soon!

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Boyz from the Hood

I’m playing catch-up.

This is my last post about Dushanbe.  I wrote it the night before I got on one of the deadliest flights in the world to Khorog (Pamiri Mountains).  I’ll get to that exhilarating terrifying experience in my next post (hopefully with video attached!).


(July 16, 2009)

I had my first encounter with the mafia the night before leaving Dushanbe.

Tajikistan is a transit route for drugs coming out of Afghanistan and headed to Europe, North America – you name it.    The budget that the police and drug enforcement agencies have to fight this problem is paltry at best.

Before moving to a country that you’ve barely heard of – located in a region that you’ve barely thought of –  you tend to do your homework.  So it wasn’t a shock to learn that there are Mafia walking the streets of Dushanbe.  Yet, you still don’t expect to actually bump into them at your favourite cafe, while enjoying  a glass of Moldavian red and desperately trying to upload pictures to facebook.

I’d had a long day.  It was hot.  I was grumpy and looking forward to a last meal and some internet.  I met up with Persia (she picked that pseudonym herself!) late in the evening at the cafe across from our flat.  Aside from us, there was a middle-aged couple enjoying each other’s company, some business men having a beer and a group of  men enjoying a meal and some vodka.

There were a ton of waiters working the floor but it still took about 15 minutes for me to order a glass of wine. The large group of gentlemen in the back were keeping them busy.

I didn’t think much of it.  I was too busy obsessing over the slow internet connection.  It was 10:00pm, the cafe closed at 11 pm and I had a ton of photos to upload.

At 11:05 pm, I had uploaded 40% of the 200 photos I had selected as my “best work”….

I looked around. Most of the tables had been vacated with the exception of the couple –  clearly in love and clueless,   the group of gentlemen behind me, and Persia and I.   I was packing up, cursing the internet, Facebook, myself and Tajikistan in general, when a group of five very large men walked past my table and plopped themselves down like they owned the place.

It was a strange scene.  I sensed a heightened tension in the air.  The cafe was obviously about to close …

There was a momentary lull in activity before the waiters soared back into action.  The chairs – that had moments ago been cleared – were pulled down.  The lights were turned back on and the place was bustling once again.

Drinks, food and snacks were delivered to the new arrivals.  The couple – still focused on each other – continued to enjoy their evening.  The group of men behind me made no effort to move.  The new arrivals greeted these men and then made themselves comfortable at a table of their own.

I called over the waiter that spoke English – a South Asian guy from Kashmir (more on this to come).   Before I could open my mouth he said, “stay as long as you want, we will have to stay open now.”

Persia and I sat in fascination.   Slightly paranoid about drawing too much attention to our table, I secretly IM’d her.

Me: Mafia?….

Persia: No!….Really?

Me: Holy Crap!

Persia: Should we go?…

Me: No way! I’m at 46%!


A couple of the guys looked over at us – we avoided eye contact.  Then decided to move.

Samir, the waiter from Kashmir, supported that decision.

We moved to the steps near the exit – close enough for me to still have access to the wireless connection but far away enough to feel as if we could bail at any time.

Persia and I wasted no time asking him about the new arrivals.  He was kind enough to fill us in.

Yes, they were Mafia. No, not Russian as I first assumed, but Tajik.

He went on to complain about the fact that they’d shown up so late.  Now they had to stay open until they left.  The staff was tired. They worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week.

While the internet crawled along, we asked him to tell us about himself.  How did a young man from Kashmir end up in Tajikistan?

He was 27 and had grown up in Kashmir.  He’d left home a while back to find work.

That search had taken him on a great adventure across the globe.    He spent a couple of years in Kazakhstan before the cost of living got too high.    He then moved to Kabul for 2 1/2 years before heading to Turkey and then finally ending up in Dushanbe.

Since his departure from Kashmir he’d picked up a  quite a few languages: Turkish, Tajik, Russian and Pashtun.  This in addition to the three he already spoke:  Hindi, Kashmiri and English!

I was impressed.

I’d been struggling to wrap my head around Tajik – a language that insists on putting the verb at the END of the sentence!

But more impressive than his obvious gift for languages was his love of travel.  He was crazy about visiting new places.

He’d only settled down in Dushanbe to pursue his studies in medicine.  He had a year to go before becoming a doctor.   He was working at the local cafe because it was good money – a lot of tourists ate there (in search of internet!) and left decent tips (not a regular custom in Tajikistan).

By the time Samir had finished recounting his adventures it was pretty late.   I had a flight to catch the next morning and Persia was getting impatient.   My pics were at 75% but my computer battery was at 11%.   Some quick math revealed that this was a hopeless battle.

We were packing up to leave when ‘the boyzs’ stood up, paid, and walked down the stairs to their car:  a silver SUV, double parked on the wrong side of the street.  They loaded in, started up the engine and sped off – making the stereotypical screech as they quickly accelerated into a U-turn down the street.

I have to admit that I felt some relief when they’d driven away.   We headed home -still a bit uneasy about our close encounter -but excited to share the news with our roommates who had opted for a quite night at home….

Next stop: Khorog.

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Feeling the pressure

I’ve been meaning to update my blog for the past week.  But work has kept me very busy.  The Monitoring & Evaluation unit at my organization is quite small.  Two to be exact:  myself and *Roxy.   And it’s our busiest time of year – when all of the projects come up for evaluation.

NGOs, particularly smaller organizations, rarely have the necessary funds to support their M&E depts.   I’m still trying to determine if this is because proposal writers overlook the costs of M&E when requesting funding, or if donors shy away from allocating funds for the M&E of projects.

In any case, donors place a lot of emphasis on evaluations, especially when it comes to making decisions about renewing project funding. So, they are pretty important – yet under-resourced…a mystery…

Anyway, before I arrived, Roxy was alone in M&E.   And she’s done a great job (with very limited resources) to keep a handle on things.    But she’s happy to have some help and I’m getting the opportunity to work in partnership with her on M&E activities.

So, what have I been up to?

In terms of work, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks designing the tools we’ll need to gather information on a fairly complex mitigation project.  We need this information to write a report on the successes, failures and lessons learned of the project.

After a lot of research and brain-storming with colleagues – we’ve settled on a mix of interviews with stakeholders, focus groups, community meetings and video documentary.  I’m really excited about that last part.   Video as a tool to monitor and evaluate projects is a growing trend and let’s face it – tons of fun.

This Thursday kicks off a six week monitoring and evaluation bonanza – I’ll be hitting six districts of the GBAO!  That’s a lot of driving to very remote and beautiful villages to visit projects.   AND, I get to go to Murgab!  Murgab is home to Kyrgyz-speaking people (originally from Kyrgyzstan).   They traditionally live in Yurts and are nomadic part of the year.

And….drum roll please……I get to cross the river into Afghanistan to monitor a couple of projects!   My obsession with crossing the river has been clearly documented in this blog and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

I’ve got a lot more to update you on but in the meantime, check out: http://harryrud.wordpress.com/2009/08/06/election-fever/ for an interesting post on the election in Afghanistan.  Harry is an aid worker living and working there – he’s a great writer and very entertaining -well worth the read.

I’ll update soon with more news!

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