Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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



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