Here's to hoping we cross paths again, Dushanbe

Well, it's 1:20am...my last official day in Dushanbe has passed. Our ride to the airport picks us up promptly at 2:30am due to Turkish Airline's regular flights at the ungodly hour of 4am.

I had an amazing day. It started with one of my Tajik dresses finally being completed and I proudly wore it to our closing ceremony. I shocked myself at how well I passed as a regular Tajik girl (pictures to come of course). I not only wore the traditional "Kortah" but also learned how to tie the headscarves that everyone wears and bought the simple sandals that seems to be Tajikistan's equivalent of Reef flip flops.

After the ceremony, I ventured out into the city for my long-awaited self experiment. I wanted to see if there was any difference of treatment when I walked around. I'm not sure that my experiment was that accurate because I already have Tajik-like features so even though I normally wear western clothes people did not bother me. While wearing the Kortah however, I noticed that nobody gave me that innocent but obvious "foreigner-alert" glance. What was even more interesting was that I was acknowledged by people differently....

As I walked up to the bus stop to catch the bus that runs every 3 minutes up and down Rudaki, the main road in the city, an older matronly woman sitting with her son looked at me. I wasn't sure at first how to react--do I greet or do I look the other way? What does everyone else do? I decided to greet her with the "asalaam" and sure enough she smiled and greeted me back, satisfied. When I got on the bus, a young man promptly stood up and gave me his seat with a "mahramat" (please, or be my guest). The woman next to me was holding her son that was crying. She kept fanning his shirt and I could tell that he was very hot (today was 110 degrees Fahrenheit...) so I offered my fan to her. She thanked me and replied in Tajik that he wants everything that he sees....like she said, two minutes later the little boy was begging to have the fan. She gave it back to me. At that moment, I glanced at the floor and almost jumped--there was a live chicken sitting in a plastic bag by her feet!

After a long stroll up the beautiful tree-lined Rudaki, I was feeling the effects of the sun....I repeat, it was 110 degrees today. I decided to take the bus back to Chaikhaneh Rahat which is a Tajik teahouse. I had lunch there and wrote in my journal as the sun began to set. I sat there for a good hour in the heat (the place has no walls, it's open-air) without a soundtrack playing in the background, just listening to the traffic on Rudaki.

Tea house:

Open air tea house:

At 8pm, I went to the Irish Pub for the last time. I had invited all of my expat friends in order to say a final goodbye. I hate finality. People filtered in and out and we ended up staying there until midnight. The original plans were to go afterwards to Port Said, the Russian-cheesy and slightly shady nightclub (the non-stop strobe lights and euro techno are just too much fun!) but I ended up calling it a night.

I am feeling emotional at leaving this place and the amazing people that I have met and spent time with. As with any trip abroad, I have grown, learned a lot about myself and the way the world works, and have come at least one step closer to figuring out what exactly I want to accomplish and where I want to live in my lifetime.

Dushanbe airport, 5am

I look forward to what the future brings.



4 days remaining....

I can't believe that it has been over a month that I have been here in Dushanbe. It's around this time that I am fully adjusted to the culture, time zone, food, geography of the city etc......and I leave in four days....
(exploring at Fort Hissar)

On Friday night, I went to a dinner party with some French military officers that are based here (there are about 200 French soldiers here in Dushanbe because the French are involved in NATO's operation in Afghanistan). It was at the home of these two guys who work at the US embassy and do Army coordination. The dinner was to thank the French for helping the US military out with loading/unloading planes that arrive at the airport etc. I was invited because they knew I speak French :-) It was a really nice dinner. I sat in between the Deputy Commander and Commander (ie big boss) of the entire French mission here in Tajikistan. Of course, I didn't realize that until after the dinner when they invited me and the two guys to the French base for lunch on Tuesday. The highlights of the dinner was definitely the French cheese that they brought with them and get regularly on the base....

After the dinner, we all went to the Irish Pub, which is the expat hangout here. I walked in and sure enough the place was packed. It is an interesting tradition here for all of the expats to catch up at "the Irish" on Friday nights about their week. I realized this time that I either recognized or knew personally almost everyone that was there, and it was a great feeling. I have had such a great time getting to know these people, why they are here, what work their organizations do, and hearing about their amazing stories about other places in the world they have lived. Most of them are veteran NGO or international organization workers who jump from developing country to developing country for work. They are masters at adaptation, and yet at the same time at transplantation...meaning, they thrive on the balance between maintaining their identity and possessions wherever they move to in the world while simultaneously evolving and learning to live in their new environment.
(Expats at The Irish Pub)

(some new friends...)

I feel strange about leaving this place because I'm not sure when I'll ever make it back here and see these people again. The finality of it all is really hard to deal with. At the same time, however, I am ready to come home, take a nice long hot shower, burn all of the clothes that I packed (I've been re-wearing the same outfits six or so outfits for a month and a half!) and eat a Chipotle burrito :-) Oh and of COURSE, see my family and friends....



Some things never change with location

Today while brushing my teeth, I heard children having an intense soccer ("football") game outside of my bathroom window. Suddenly, I had a major flashback to listening to the children playing soccer outside of my window of my Parisian apartment. I used to look forward to returning home every night and preparing dinner to the echoing sounds of the children playing in the courtyard. Something about hearing those sounds every night for six month stayed with me and nearly halfway across the globe in a tiny Central Asian country, little boys are playing soccer in the same way.

I often find that simple images, smells, and/or sounds can produce such a profound impact on me. I am often left with emotions that I can never adequately describe to anyone else because it is so personal. The sound of the children is so relaxing, familiar, universal. Other situations that strike me while traveling are moments when humor is translated universally--that brief moment when a tangible connection is made with another person over something that warrants uncontrollable, and often loud, laughter. All this with the language barrier and often simple hand gestures and facial movements. Another is witnessing the simple and profound transfer of a smile from one person to another. The circumstance of which a smile is given to another person differs, but the emotion behind it never does. On the more materialistic side, I smile to myself when I see women here (old or young, traditional or modern) all talking on cell phones while walking down the street.
view from La Grande Dame cafe...doing Farsi homework and drinking an espresso:
view from inside an internet cafe:

"The world is but one country, and mankind its citizens." -Baha'i Writings



Good Days, Bad Days

Life in general is made up of good days and the inevitable bad days.

(Keeping watermelons cold in the stream...)

When you're in your 'comfort zone' however (which is different for every individual), the bad days are usually brushed aside. I have found that my bad or "off" days while traveling often stem from an unexplainable feeling that has most of the time been gestating inside of me and finally decided to sprout leaves. The result is that I often have an out-of-body experience where I am fully conscious of my feelings and yet I have no idea where they stem from (ha, stem...pun not intended). These occasional bad days cause me personally to disengage from my surroundings. During these spells, I find myself walking down the street, staring straight ahead and thinking that if anybody tries to mess with me, I will just lose it. It's as if a barrier comes up and I momentarily give up empathy, curiosity and patience with cultural clashes/differences.

(a Tajik woman teaching me how to tie my headscarf)

On the other extreme, however, the good days are really wonderful. There are days (and I would say that they definitely out-number the bad) when I step outside of my apartment door and take in all of the sights and smells of the city. I put on another "lens" and see things that differ as curious, beautiful, and exciting. I engage with all of the people that I come across and feel as if I am truly living here. It is on those days that I count my little successes and store them for later. Little successes such as the stern cashier at the grocery store warming up to me after many shopping trips, or the little girl who was walking beside me and asked where I was from in Tajik. When I replied in Tajik that I am Iranian-American and studying in Dushanbe, her face lit up ("Ahm-reekah!") Even the simplest things like taking the public transportation here alone (and without giving away that you're a foreigner) makes me feel accomplished.

("Plav" the national dish, common in Central Asia....savory rice and carrots with pieces of lamb and homemade yogurt on the side)

I have learned to be aware of my state of mind while abroad and to give myself what I need, whether it be a little bit of alone time or a phone call to a loved one to keep me focused and maintain perspective.

On another note, I cannot believe that I only have 10 more days left in this country....I feel as though I am just now socially and culturally adjusted!



Independence Day Reflections and Outings

Yesterday (Saturday), our group went on an outing to a vacation/rest spot that is only a half an hour outside of the city. It was a little water park/picnic site situated at the foot of the wonderful Tajik mountains that normally you cannot see when you are in the middle of the city.

Highlight of getting there: the multiple bribes we had to pay the police at checkpoints just because we were foreigners in a van which caught their attention:

We were assigned to a large wooden table/bed (I forgot what they are called) where we set out all of the things that we had brought......yogurt, fresh Tajik bread, fruit, nuts, and vegetables and the restaurant on the campground brought us delicious "shesh-leek," or beef kabobs. We feasted all together and then afterwards all parted to go hiking, swimming, play pool (with a Russian pool table which is very different than an American table), ping-pong (I got beaten so badly by Aziz our Tajik friend), reading, and napping on the bed/table...all with the mountains as a backdrop and the sound of the river behind us.

When we got back after spending a good 6 hours in the intense heat (even though we were in the shade!) we all were a bit dehydrated and had headaches. But my night was not over! A few of us went directly to the US embassy for the 4th of July party (which incidentally was on July 5th...) It was a good time spent with compatriots. We ate hamburgers, hot dogs, and real salad--for the first time in two weeks! They imported drinks from the US and the water and ice were safe to drink....ah, the luxuries we take for granted :-)

There was also activities for the children (having to do with red, white, and blue in some shape or form), sports, and other fun "American" BBQ favorites. I must say that one of the highlights for me was having a tour of the Marines' "barracks." For those of you who don't know, at every embassy abroad, there are Marines who are assigned to protect the embassy in shifts. They fare pretty well....the ones here have a chauffeur (who drives a black Suburban....), a cook, imported goods from the US, a big screen TV with video games like Guitar Hero, and, to my shock and insane pleasure, every single movie you could hope for! They explained to me that every month they get a package of goods and movies/TV shows that have not even come out on DVD yet in the US. Not too bad. After standing there with my mouth open for an entire minute, I invited myself over sometime to watch movies and they said "of course!" (oh, and they have a popcorn machine....bliss)

You know, it's strange that I'm only here for 6 weeks and I miss things that I wouldn't think I would miss. The other day, I had a random craving for a Subway sandwich! This sort of "culture withdrawal" did not happen to me while I was living in France.....for whatever the reason, I find myself drawn to the comforts of the US embassy compound, in all of its over-the-top imported gloriousness :-)

All in all, it was a great but exhausting weekend. Right now, I am at La Grande Dame profiting greatly from wireless internet and a good espresso.

Next on the agenda is homework--oh yeah, I'm here for FARSI CLASS....I have to keep reminding myself :-)
My Tajik Homework...learning to write in cursive Cyrillic!



Tajikistan is Gangsta

(My friend Nathan gave me the idea for the title....sorry a little inside joke humor).

Basically, I am learning more and more about the corruption that is rampant in this country both institutionally and under the table. Almost every other car here is a Lexus SUV, Hummer, Mercedes, BMW imported from Dubai...and it is pretty much understood (by expats at least) that they are bought with drug money. Also, the police don't stop those cars for bribes (which is usual here) because they know that those people have connections. The Afghan/Tajik border is virtually unregulated and cartons of narcotics are regularly trafficked. Apparently, it has even crushed the Burmese heroin market.
The Hummer parked outside my apartment...

The Tajik government is....transparently corrupt. The President's family owns virtually all of the profitable Tajik businesses and keeps the wealth. The daughter of the President has in the past tried to buy and/or forcefully take expat businesses and when she doesn't get her way, they destroy or imprison the owners. For example, the Turkish owner of Orima, the chain grocery store, is in prison for not agreeing to sell the business.

Enough on this for now. Big Brother is watching........