Posts Tagged ‘blog’

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:













Two women strolling down the road.

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




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 😉
I stayed with this family while in Murgab. Look at those cheeks!











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.

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.
Horses are an important part of the culture here as opposed to other parts of Tajikistan.







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.





 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.   


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!




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!  


 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).    


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.  







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.



DSC02977  DSC03022

 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.       








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.






Churned butter




The latrine.



  The view from the latrine.





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.”


 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.  😛

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Kids everywhere. And they just appear out of nowhere. Adorable.

Kids everywhere. And they just appear out of nowhere. Adorable.









I met this family on the way down the mountain.


Women listening to the training on  natural disasters in their community.

Women attending the training on the natural disasters in their community.


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The third gender

I’m back from Afghanistan.
The view of Tajikistan from Afghanistan


And, I feel kind of silly that I was even nervous about going!

Everything went as planned: I left the office with the team (social mobilizer, geologist, GIS specialists, Engineer and driver), loaded down with supplies (mostly food – because it’s Ramadan and people are fasting in AFG ) and my overstuffed backpack.  I still haven’t learned how to pack light.

I can’t communicate with Raja, the head geologist (he doesn’t speak English), but the look he gave me when I showed up for the two day trip with 2 backpacks and a hand-bag was universal.


  I mean what do you pack for a trip to Afghanistan?!  I brought a pair of long johns, a sweater, two scarves – one to cover my head and one to cover my butt – just in case the pants were too tight. A long-sleeved shirt, baggy pants, a head lamp, two chocolate bars (for the 5km hike), three bottles of water (for after the 5km hike), a sleeping bag (I had learned my lesson on my last field visit – bed bugs…tons of bed bugs).   A journal to record every moment and a book just in case I got stranded.  Money, passport, cell phone etc. etc. etc.  I double- checked my pack for anything suspicious – paranoid I know – but after my experience in Nicaragua with a pack of ferocious-looking dogs sniffing and licking my bags as I crossed the border – it felt warranted.

With the car packed, we headed for the border. I had a huge smile on my face the whole way. It took a total of 20 mins. to get there!   About half way there a wind storm broke out.  This was my first wind storm – and it was INTENSE. Sand flying everywhere.    I’ve never seen anything like it.  I’d heard that the winds can pick-up quickly in Khorog but I had no idea what that actually meant.

It was nuts.


I found this man to have such an elegance about him.

This man had an air of elegance about him.


I was trying to simultaneously cover my head, grab my bags and hand over my passport to the border guards.  Eventually, everyone gave up and took cover in the border station.     

Going through customs was amazingly easy.   I love working for an NGO.   It’s like traveling first class as opposed to coach: the border guards know the organization and the people on the team (the fact that they are from the same area and speak the same language also helps!).  They are happy that NGOs are implementing projects in their communities and generally want everything to go smoothly.

Not necessarily the experience that I have had as a traveler trying to cross borders!

I left everything in their capable hands and attempted for the twentieth time to put on my head scarf (Afghan style). Finally, Muni (the social mobilizer) came to my rescue.

Border crossings are funny things.   There is always an expanse of no-man’s land between countries where vehicles are prohibited.  So, you have to get out the car, grab your stuff and walk the 100 meters or so to the other side.  Once there, you are told to halt, hand over your passport and await permission to enter.

At the end of the bridge, we were greeted by the Afghan border guards.   Again, friendly hand-shakes, smiles and “Salam Alaikums” all around.   Aside from a few curious stares in my direction – things went smoothly.  The passports were quickly stamped and we were on our way.

Right away, I noticed differences between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.


Houses are built on rocky terrain. Land shortage is a problem so people build where they can.

Land shortage is a problem - communities want to keep as much land available for cultivation as possible. Therefore, houses are built on rocky terrain where cultivation isn't an option.


Not in the landscape  – both are breath-taking –  but in the conditions of the roads.   On the Tajik side, the main road built along the Amu river (the river divides this part of Tajikistan from Afghanistan) has two lanes with vehicles driving in both directions.   It’s well paved and in the course of a day you’ll see a variety of vehicles driving in both directions – including Mashukas(white mini-vans used by locals for transport within Khorog).

The Afghan side is the complete opposite.

The roads – where they exist -are terrible.  The trip wouldn’t be possible without a 4×4.   Other than one other vehicle, I saw no form of public transportation.   In fact, in certain directions the road doesn’t even extend far enough.   Driving to our guest house (we rented a local family’s home for the visit) took about 45 mins., at 20 km an hour – and it was bumpy.    On the other side, the same distance would take about 15 min.  Vehicles drive at 60 km -80 km an hour – if not faster.

As usual, I had my head hanging out the window – snapping everything in sight.

And there was a lot to take in:

–  Red-haired children dressed in simple cotton clothing, running after the vehicle as it passed.   At first, I thought that perhaps people in the village were very closely related – I mean red hair is not a common trait.   But I soon discovered that the people here enjoy using henna (a dye) to colour their hair (the men do it as well) It’s quite fashionable.

–  Women, head-covered, working, combing their children’s hair, or picking fruit.


Ring around the Rosey - Afghan style.

Children playing in the field.
A ybig sister holding her younger brother's hand in the village.

A big sister holding her younger sister’s hand.



DSC04165The women in Tajikistan do not carry things on their heads.  The women here do.



 Cleaning grain.  The label on the bag reads: World Food Program

A girl cleaning grain - note the label on the bag: World Food Program.



A co-worker with the Afghan team.

– Men, in traditional Afghan dress ( white cotton pants and top and colored vest), walking along the road with donkeys in tow, harvesting their fields – often by hand-  or lounging in their stalls’ in the bazaar.

 Interesting fact: Women aren’t allowed in the bazaars.

International women are exempt from this social norm.  My friend David describes the space that international women occupy as a “third gender”.  I thought that was interesting and quite accurate  – at least in this part of AFG.  

Respecting the culture and traditions of the people is important to me.  But in this case,  I had no choice.  The road to the village we were visiting had been wiped out by a combination of rock fall and flooding.  And the only way up to the village was through the bazaar.  It was a 5 km hike to get to the village.

And it was worth it – a truly beautiful hike.

Once we reached the village, I was exhausted.  Due to a fairly rigorous daily work-out routine with my neighbor/roomie Rachel – I’m in fairly good shape.  But the air is very thin at this altitude so even a short hike can be exhausting. 

Or at least that’s what I told myself…

I had on $200 hiking boots, a visor, sunblock, sunglasses, a bottle of water, nuts and sweat proof everything and still couldn’t keep up with my Afghan colleague -(the woman pictured earlier)- she was wearing platform boots (SERIOUSLY!) and a dress/pant combo (Afghan style) and that’s about it.

And she didn’t even break a sweat!

At the village, we were greeted by the village council members  and directed to have lunch.  The governance system in Afghanistan is different from Tajikistan – they don’t have Village Organization leaders (VOs), instead they have a village council system  that I’m still not entirely clear on, so I won’t elaborate.

We’d brought some supplies with us for lunch because we didn’t want to burden the community with having to feed us.  And many (but not all) members of the community were fasting.  This is an Ismaili area and fasting isn’t as strictly adhered to as in other parts of Afghanistan.

For lunch, we ate raw Maple Leaf chicken dogs (ah, a taste of home….), bread and yogurt.  There are many types of yogurt here – all homemade.   And I’m ashamed to say that I still can’t bring myself to eat it- the lumpiness of it reminds me of sour milk.   I loath sour milk.  At home, I even struggle to drink milk the day before the stated expiration date on the box.

I’ve eaten a lot of things here.  And I’m pretty good about just going with it – but I hesitated with the raw dogs.   It’s one thing if it’s foreign food – but something else entirely when it’s from home and you KNOW it’s supposed to be cooked.  And let’s face it  – the best parts of the meat are not usually reserved for the dogs.

But after a 5km hike I was famished.   So, I sucked it up,  ate and waited 30 mins. to see what would happen.   Thankfully, nothing  too out of the ordinary for Tajikistan…

After lunch it was back to work.

My job was to take photos and video of the training. I obviously didn’t understand what was being said so I couldn’t monitor the content of the training.   But I enjoyed watching the community soak in the information.  They asked a lot of questions about the disasters that we had mapped in their community.  The goal of the training is to provide them with concrete mechanisms for survival when –not if- the disasters occur.   In Afghanistan and the Pamirs, natural disasters are a part of life.

In Tajikistan, most of the communities are aware of the type of disasters they face: mudflow (from the mountains destroys homes), debris flow (water carries debris to destroy lands and houses), rockfall (huge boulders roll down the mountain taking out everything in their way), under-flooding (under ground water seeps into homes causing extreme dampness which leads to illnesses among other things) avalanche, earthquake, Lake Sarez (this one is insane – if this lake bursts it would flood all of Central Asia!).   Some communities that I work in have only 20 minutes to evacuate if the Lake bursts…

Our organization, teaches people what to do in case of a disaster, how to prepare ahead of time and where to go to be safe.   We also help the communities form response teams to rescue people that are trapped by the disaster.  When we have the funding, we build mitigation projects to protect communities from disasters:  walls to guard against debris flow, reinforced schools to protect against earthquakes, irrigation projects to contain underground water and redistribute it for harvesting of the lands, terracing of the land to slow down avalanches and give people a chance to get to safety etc.


This picture puts a smile on my face.


In Afghanistan,  the communities are aware of the disasters  but due to serious social problems they don’t pay much attention to them.  There is certainly a very stong need for development projects here in all sectors :  health, education, civil society, rural development – I’m sure I’ve missed  quite a few, but you get my point.

The literacy rate in TJK is 99.5%, in AFG it’s 28% (and men are twice as literate as women…).   Life expectancy in TJK is 66.3 years and in AFG it’s 44 years (both are too low!);  the maternal mortality rate is 100 per 100,000 (live births) in TJK and 1, 356 per 100,000 in AFG… Unacceptable.

Many homes are  unstable and decaying.  People die here due to their homes crumbling on top of them during an earthquake.

There is no real infrastructure.  And the lower level of hygiene is evident.



The Afghans I was fortunate enough to speak with were extremely kind and hospitable.  People walking along the side of the road always stop to greet you with one hand across the chest as you drive or walk by.   I was invited in for tea on many occasions and accepted as many invitations as I could.  It was clear from the weak tea and stale biscuits served that life here is very hard in this village.

And the Afghans are also well aware of the differences in the two countries – even though many of them can’t get visas to cross the border.   From the Afghan side you can see the development on the Tajik side- the roads, the cars, the houses, the infrastructure:  telephone polls, hospitals, the SERENA 5 STAR HOTEL!

I wonder what it must have been like for the people on this side  to watch as the Soviets built roads, schools and hospitals –  transforming Khorog from a place that resembled their own country-  to a “developed” town.

My colleagues at our partner organization in AFG haven’t been able to get visas to cross into Tajikistan.   I was told by one staff member I interviewed that he will have to walk for 2 days to get to a village in another district to conduct a training.

This is because on the Afghan side the road has yet to be constructed that far.  On the Tajik side – this same trip would take six hours.    If he were allowed to cross the border – he could drive to that district on the TJK side and then cross the bridge over to the Afghan side once there.

It would simplify his life and allow him to do important work in that district.   But visas are not given out very easily to Afghan citizens.




Trying to carve a road into the side of the mountain.


I had the opportunity to engage in a few discussions on the Afghan elections and of course the war.   Everyone I spoke to had voted and experienced no problems with this process (including the women).   One man was quite angry that the Americans ( he associated the  war with the US primarily) hadn’t won the war yet – he asked me if I thought it was a conspiracy because war is good for the US economy.   He asked me if I knew that it was the Americans that supported the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviets – and that these were the same people terrorizing Afghans now.

We had quite an intense discussion on the Taliban.    One of my Afghan colleagues talked a lot about the number of Afghan civilians being killed in the war and how the tide is turning against the Americans for this reason primarily.  Not news – but interesting to hear from an actual Afghan as opposed to political commentary in the news.

Tragically,  the day following  that conversation a NATO airstrike killed 70 people – many were civilians…






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I’m leaving for Afghanistan this afternoon. 

I’ll be crossing the river, driving four hours into one of the valleys and then hiking 4km to a village.   I’m going with our team (Engineer, GIS specialist, Social Mobilizer and Driver).  They are conducting a training for communities on how to prepare  against natural disasters.  And I am monitoring it.  

Roxy was supposed to come with me but she didn’t get her visa in time.  I’ve gotten used to traveling with her pretty much everywhere so this will be new for me.   Luckily, the social mobilizer speaks a bit of English, so I’ll be able to communicate somewhat with my colleagues. 

I’m excited.  And a little nervous. 

But really looking forward to spending a couple of days living in an Afghan village.  It’s an amazing opportunity.  

I plan to use my broken (read: non-existent) Tajik and a lot of gesturing to communicate with people.  I have no idea what the dynamic will be like.   

That whole religion, gender, enemy combatant thing. 

Wish me luck.  🙂


Afghan VISA

Afghan VISA

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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.


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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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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(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…


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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.


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



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