Sunday, December 16, 2007

Half way point - already! yikes!

Traditional Tajik items at "The Rose" restaurant
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Saturday, December 15, 2007

I can't believe how time has flown past; this week marks my half way point on my 7 month internship! That means I better start doing all those things that I keep saying "oh, I have lots of time, I'll do that later..." such as visiting nearby countries, find some hiking to do (I am surrounded by mountains, I'll make my own trails if I have too!) And make sure that I am getting everything out of my experience working at MEDA as I can. Well, fate just has a way of making things happen, and just as I realized how little time I have left to do all of these things, some opportunities fell into my lap this week.

First of all I am very sad to say that Brad, our Program Manager in Tajikistan, had a family emergency and had to fly back to the US early this week. When he left I let him know that if there was anything I could do, please let me know... wow, I didn't know what I was getting myself into!

While Brad was on his 48 hour journey home, I received a text... "Kelly, can you do me an important favour?" I thought... hmmm... sure, water your plants in your office!? Maybe cancel a Russian lesson you had planned? "I need you to contact EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and they wanted to meet with me over the proposed concept paper. Can you contact them, explain my situation... (Yes, no problem, of course, I'm sure they'll understand).... and then maybe you and the finance manager can meet instead of me... (What? me? meet with EBRD? for you? oh boy!)...I need a $1.5 million dollar commitment! .... (Seriously? is this really happening? I'm supposed to ask them for over a million dollars? This is an exciting opportunity, but I hope I don't blow it!)...

*note: fate -> wanting to get everything I can out of my experience working at MEDA

Well, after a phone call Wednesday afternoon I had a meeting arranged for Friday evening. That meant I had 2 days to learn everything about investment funds that I could, and to memorize the concept paper and go over all details with a fine-tooth comb. I contacted MEDA headquarters in Canada to ask the investment fund specialist for as much info as he could give me (thanks for that idea Mel!) and I learned all the terminology that is thrown around... including in the concept paper. I also hammered out some details that have been discussed since the initial concept paper was written. All those meetings that I sat-in on in Dushanbe with Brad were really going to come in handy! (I knew they were preparing me for 'the future', but I didn't realize 'the future' was 2 weeks away!)

So Friday came faster then I had hoped, but I was thoroughly prepared and excited for the meeting. And there was a little confusion with the date/time of the meeting, so we ended up moving it to lunch... good thing I did my homework ahead and was prepared to go in early! And it didn't help that when the finance manager came into my office to say it was going to be early he added "and by the way... you're doing all the talking!" So now the pressure was really on! But I felt fine about it; I was actually looking forward to it by now.

The meeting was held at a nice restaurant, so it was a comfortable atmosphere. And when the representatives from EBRD arrived they were very friendly and quite relaxed, phew! Then we exchanged business cards and started introductions... and it turned out they weren’t actually involved in investment funds and they weren’t familiar with the concept paper! So in a way it took off the pressure, as they were not involved in the decision if we would receive funding or not. But they were very curious about MEDA and about the paper, they asked a lot of questions and they contributed with some suggestions. They told us who we should contact, and in their opinion there was funding available, and they liked our idea, so all-in-all it was a good meeting! It gave me a chance to explain the whole concept from the beginning (like I had heard Brad do in our meetings in Dushanbe) and answer any questions they came up with. I was glad I did all of my homework, as I never felt stuck for an answer!

After about an hour and a half discussing business, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the office. What a sigh of relief! Then I wrote up a report on the meeting to send to Brad who anxiously awaited it... although I don't think it was what he was expecting because we did not meet with the 'decision makers.'

So Friday night I celebrated by staying home, baking cookies, and doing Russian homework (a usual crazy Friday night in Tajikistan). Earlier in the week I had received an email from a foreigner I met quite a while ago to make plans for the weekend, he asked me if I wanted to come along with him and his wife to a market on the border of Kyrgyzstan Saturday morning, so of course I said yes!

Saturday morning they picked me up, and we headed to the border. The driver was Tajik and knew where he was going... but we didn't! We thought the market was in Tajikistan, but I had my passport (and Kyrgyz visa) just incase, but the other 2 didn't think about bringing theirs. As we pulled up to border control (men standing around with big guns) they asked for ID's... well, 2 of us could go across! Philip and his wife ended up telling me and the driver to just cross over, buy a few items for them, then come back to meet them. So I walked across the border onto Kyrgyz soil, we went around the corner to the 'market' and it was empty... completely abandoned. So we turned around, asked the 'nice' men with guns what happened to the market, and they laughed and said it was on the Tajik side today... after all that negotiating and problem solving we found out it was for nothing! So we walked back across the border to Tajikistan and met the others, and drove up the street to the market.

*note: fate -> wanting to visit nearby countries

At the market there were much of the usual Tajik items, but there were a few Kyrgyz hats we found. We were looking for Kyrgyz slippers too, but there was none to be found. Some nice vendors said they would buy some slippers and bring them to the market for us in a couple weeks, so we will go back to get them! We also found some nice silk material, and I bought some beautiful knitted wool socks for only $1, some things are just too cheap here!

Then we stopped at a Tajik carpet making facility and bought some Tajik slippers... they are literally slippers made from carpets, kinda weird, but very Tajik!

Next stop I introduced them to the "American" store, where you can find a selection on imported products, such as spices and high end liquors, yesterday I even found tissues! I had never seen them here before!

Then we finished the day with lunch at my favourite Khujand restaurant "The Rose", it is underground, but has a great atmosphere, the walls and ceiling are covered with bamboo and there are traditional Tajik artefacts decorating the room. And they have a great Chinese dish of rice and vegetables that I can order without the meat!

Later that night I had some girls over to my place for dinner. It was very nice, I have only met a couple foreigners, but we are all so busy we barley see each other, so it was nice to get back in touch with them again! I had made pasta, tomato sauce (from scratch, using fresh tomatoes even) and garlic bread, and they brought a delicious chocolate cake and cherry sauce, yum! Then we talked away the hours before we realized it was getting late... we must get together more often!

And finally, tonight Philip and his wife invited me over to their place for dinner and to watch a Christmas movie, can't wait! And they also invited me to spend Christmas with them; we will cook a big dinner and spend the day together. It's great to have friends to spend the holidays with, but I will miss my friends and family back home, but this is the next best thing :)

I hope everyone is enjoying the holidays wherever they are!

Next mission: to go hiking, somewhere, somehow!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Winter is here!

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Winter has arrived! I have heard many warnings/rumours about winters in Tajikistan, so I thought I would describe what it has been like so far.

Electricity: most households (nearly all.... except mine) have electricity for only a few hours in the morning, and a few hours in the evening and are totally blacked out by 9pm. Some houses rely on electric heaters, which means they are in for very cold nights as it breaks freezing nearly every night here. The MEDA office falls victim to these short hours most days, but we do have a generator which can produce enough juice for nearly all computers if we keep the lights off. But seeing as it starts to get dark at 4:30 this can make it difficult. At my apartment I'm VERY lucky because I live in a building that NEEDS to have electricity because of the upscale restaurant and conference center that are attached. In order to keep electricity 24/7 they have to pay extra to join the "red line" which is usually saved only for essential buildings such as hospitals, banks, and government buildings (of course). For the average household it is too expensive to join the "red line" (or everyone would and it wouldn't work!) so I'm very lucky to piggy-back on an operation that forks over the money!

Gas: this is also "rationed" and turned on usually for 2 hours in the morning, and 2 hours in the evening. Gas is usually used to cook with, so luckily they turn it on during two of the popular mealtime hours. Most stoves here have 2 gas burners and 2 electric burners so there is a back-up when one is off... however the majority of the time they are both off! And the ovens are usually one or the other, so you're either lucky or your not. These rules apply to the MEDA office, as we often have too little electricity to cook with that, and as I mentioned the gas is only turned on for breakfast and dinner, I guess they figure people don't need to eat three times a day. So often times the cook at MEDA pulls out a propane tank and lights that up to cook the big pot of oil and meat (did I mention I bring my own lunches!?). And you may be a little shocked that we use propane indoors here; I actually find it quite normal now and forget that it's equivalent to having a BBQ inside. Many things are "normal" here that would scare the heck out of most foreigners... lets not even get into transportation. The past couple of days the government employee that's responsible for cutting off gas must have been sick as we have been really lucky to have it all day! I like it a lot when we have gas because that means we can run the furnace at work and put the old hot water radiators to work! I LOVE this heat, it's WONDERFUL!!! And lastly, my apartment doesn't require gas... my little toaster oven/burners are electric, quite strategic because of the regular electricity ;) As well as my electric heaters... toasty warm!

Water: this seems to be fairly consistent for me, however many co-workers do not have water during the day (like from 6am-11pm) but I'm lucky, at work and home I seem to have been making out with a constant water supply.

So you're probably thinking that's about all the resources we use here... but oh no my friends, remember learning about all the negative effects of burning coal? Yup, that's what we use for heat in the office (when the gas is out). It smells bad and if it's not burning just right it's quite smokey. Often we chose to close the door to our office and prefer the cold over the headache and smell from the coal. But at least if we're really cold we can go downstairs and warm up by the coal stove... you just have to chose the lesser evil, being cold or possibly getting cancer!? I just keep thinking "everything in moderation..." how much damage can I possibly do to my health in one winter? Hmm... maybe I don't want to know that answer! Especially since most cooking pots, pans and baking trays are aluminum left over from Soviet times.

That pretty much sums up my living conditions... not too shabby, but I do feel bad for all those who aren't quite as lucky with utilities and heat (knock on wood!).

And now I'm just hoping for some more snow, if it's gonna be cold it may as well be snowing! (well, at least a few inches)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A little trip to the capitol!

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As I had mentioned previously, last week I visited the capitol city, Dushanbe. I was looking forward to the trip, in my Lonely Planet travel guide they actually recommend several things to see and do, unlike Khujand where they barely recommend you spend a few hours on your way across the country, lol. I didn't know what to expect really, I just looked forward to exploring and wanted to find some kind of entertainment because it is very lacking here.

The plane ride was only about 40 minutes, and we had a Boeing so it was a fairly smooth flight as opposed to the smaller planes that are quite shady. I was pleasantly surprised to see the guest house we stayed at, it was very modern, clean, comfortable, and had hot water and electricity, what else could we ask for!? And in the morning they served a great breakfast everyday, with a spread of fruits, vegetables, juices, yogurt, nuts, eggs, meat (not that I cared) and my favorite part was the oatmeal, it was soooo good! Actually my other favorite part was REAL coffee!! They actually had a PERCOLATOR!!! I couldn't believe my eyes, a week without Nescafe was a dream come true.

The first couple of days I wandered around the city with my Lonely Planet hidden in my purse. I hate to be the stereotypical tourist with the camera and travel book, so I tried not to use either of these things unless absolutely necessary. If I try to blend into the crowd people assume I'm Russian, which causes much less attention then a foreigner. I went to a couple museums and saw some very interesting artifacts, one was a ginormous statue of a sleeping bouda, it was the whole length of the room, and sadly they had to cut it into over a dozen pieces to dig it up and transport it, they don't seem to have the same level of respect for ancient artifacts here. Many items from the stone age that they had on display had pen writing on it, recording info about where they found it I guess. And many items were in the open so people could touch them, it's kinda sad to see how badly things were treated.

I also must talk about the food... I was SOOOOO impressed!!! We found a restaurant that had VEGETARIAN food!!! They offered everything that I have been craving since I've come here, from Mexican, Italian, to Lebanese! I ate at this restaurant twice in two days, the first time I had a VEGGIE burger! The second time I had a veggie burrito! I really want to go back about a dozen times, I need to have a falafel, quesadilla, fajita, and many Italian dishes such as pesto, alfredo, vegetarian lasagna and of course pizza.... good thing I don't live in Dushanbe or I'd weigh a million pounds!

Another aspect I loved of the city was the coffee... yes, they offered percolated coffee, but few places even offered the fancy stuff, I even had a mocaccino and a latte! There was a cafe a friend recommended called Espresso, and they offered everything that Starbucks does... and the cafe was so nice I could swear I was back in TO. It was nice to have a taste of home, literally.

So after I fulfilled many of my cravings and desire to explore, I attended some very interesting business meetings. I met with some very important people from the World Bank, FAO (UN), US A.I.D., IFC, and GTZ (a very large German organization). It was very good experience for me, and really helped me gain a network of important contacts. We were discussing a concept paper that MEDA has proposed to several organizations and the feedback was excellent. I think we may have to go back to do some follow up and meet with others who have gained interest! Let's hope so anyways!

At the end of the week we hopped back on a plane, this time we weren't so lucky with a Boeing, but a much smaller plane that has definitely been around for a while... the seats were flimsy and there was no cushion left and I was sitting on a metal bar. Apparently there was no oxygen masks or any safety devices we had to worry about; there was none of the usual flight attendant skits with explanation of what to do in case of emergency. There was simply a sign that was projected with light to the front of the plane saying "no smoking" and "fasten seat belts". Well, at least there were seat belts I guess!? The take off and landing were surprisingly not bad, or maybe I was too exhausted to be nervous. But all-in-all the flight was safe and we got home to experience Khujand's first rain!! This was big news, it hasn't rained in over 6 months, so it was welcomed by everyone! It was a little hard to adjust too though, Dushanbe is usually quite a bit warmer then Khujand with no wind, so it went from being 70F and sunny to just above freezing and raining. And everyday since I've been back it's been overcast, raining on and off, and hanging around freezing. Welcome home!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

I'm still alive!

First of all I'd like to apologize for the lapse in posts, I have the usual excuses: no internet connection, broken computer, I was sick, I was busy.... Sorry!!! But I'm back :)

But in the past month I will give you the top ten stories that I should have blogged about, but didn't!

10. I just finished conducting my first training seminar! It was on HACCP (food safety type certification). I really enjoyed teaching, and we kept the participants very engaged by using flip charts, group work, presentations, etc., no one fell asleep!

9. I was sick for the first time since I've been here with a fever... but my good friends made me home-made vegetarian soup and bought half a pharmacy for me to get better! It put a damper on my weekend, but I was healthy for my training seminar that started on Monday!

8. The President of Tajikistan is visiting my city right now, so for 3 days we will have electricity, gas, and water!!! YAY!!! Hot showers and hot food for everyone :) But security is tight, they have shut down all streets and there are armed guards every 10 meters. Everyone must walk to school/work. BUT before the President made it to Khujand, there was a terrorist attack against him when he was leaving Dushchanbe. There was a bomb that went off near him, injuring one of his guards. I think it was a very small attempt, nothing very serious to worry about... and this is all word of mouth, I can't read or listen to the news that is in Tajik!

7. I went for a picnic in the mountains, last week we showed up at work on Monday and found out Tuesday was a national holiday... so a few of us took a truck and ventured down the streets of Khujand trying to find one that gave us access to the mountains, and after some dead ends and many u-turns we found a dirt road we were looking for! We set up a blanket, had some fresh bread with cheese and tomato slices, a bottle of wine and some chocolates and enjoyed the beautiful scenery! We just had to share the land with a few hundred sheep off in the distance.

6. I went BOWLING in Tajikistan! And they say there's no night life here, ha! I met some more foreigners and we spent a few hours bowling then went to a beautiful restaurant I had only heard about. I had an excellent salad and the best potato soup I've ever had! We had scheduled to get together the next weekend to eat and watch an ENGLISH movie, but that's when I got sick and had to cancel :(

5. My Russian lessons are coming along; I'm taking them twice a week, plus doing lots of homework. I can read, write and speak all at the beginner’s level. It's coming along, slowly but surely! It's easy to get lazy when you surround yourself with people who can speak English though... so it takes a lot of effort! My charades has also greatly improved, lol, I dare anyone to take me on when I get home!

4. I have started karate lessons, but women here really aren't allowed out of their houses to do much, so I'm an only student! I have wonderful one-on-one lessons twice a week! My instructor is saving to go for his black belt in a "more recognized" country, he is very good! And he has taught me some great self-defence moves, so I feel quite comfortable walking among the Tajik men now! (they can be quite forward and ANNOYING!!!!)

3. I threw a Halloween party for MEDA staff! It was great fun, we needed to think of a team building event and Halloween seemed to be a perfect opportunity! But no, Tajikistan doesn't actually celebrate Halloween, but they have heard about it in movies, etc. from western culture and knew all about it! They really got into it, and we played some games such as tug-of-war, we had a pumpkin piƱata, and a pumpkin carving contest! We had a huge spread of food and drinks for the celebration too, it was great to see everyone working together, having fun and laughing, it's important to keep up a good moral at work!

2. I experienced attending a visitation period after a co-worker lost her mother-in-law. It was very different. We left work and all the Tajik women covered their hair with a scarf (out of respect) and we went to the family’s house. When we got there we walked in single file and went through what resembles a reception line at a wedding back home, except it was only the women greeting us, and they were crying of course. The men walk through a different entrance to the house and are greeted by the male family members. Then we were walked into a large room, sat around the perimeter, they said a prayer, then we got up and left through the same line of women. The family is supposed to stay home and mourn for 40 days after a death. Not go to work, not leave to buy anything... people are supposed to bring them food and that's about it, but in today's world that would be difficult as many people have jobs they cannot leave for 40 days, or miss that much school! But it's still the rule, whether people follow it or not...

1. I went to a Tajik wedding, and you guessed it, it was an arranged marriage. I was honoured to be invited by my co-worker, but I felt very out of place. We didn't see the actual ceremony, but saw their car approach the reception hall. They got out, walked up the stairs and these men dressed in traditional clothes were playing these large horns, they stood about 5 men in a row on either side of the bride and groom and their horns made a triangle above their heads. When they entered the hall the proceeded to their platform, where they stood solemnly and watched everyone celebrate their marriage. The bride and groom are not allowed to smile (not that I think they wanted to) but it was very weird for me to see a bride that wasn't grinning ear to ear on her wedding day. This bride looked young, and she was, just 18 years old. Apparently the boy saw her, told his parents he wanted to marry her... they approached her parents, they agreed. The boy and girl only met about twice for 20 min before their big day.
Dinner was served, we had about 30 plates of food scattered on our table to help ourselves too, aswel as a mini-bar on the center of out table offering vodka, wine, beer, juice, water, etc. The bride and groom were brought plates of all the same food, but they were not allowed to eat. They had to respect their guests by standing on their platform, and the girl would slowly bow all night with her right hand folded over her heart, and the left arm entwined in her new husbands arm. After dinner the music was playing loudly, everyone got up to dance and have a good time. Again the bride and groom just stood on their platform as she continued to slowly bow. I was sad for them, but didn't show it of course. I joined everyone on the dance floor and tried to pretend to be happy for them, after all, I was a guest. Then at the end of the night I was invited behind the scenes, back to her new house... the in laws... to see how the night continued.
At her new families house (the bride always moves into her husbands family home to act as a maid to the family, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, having babies) all of the closer friends and relatives gathered. There were plastic tables and chairs set up outside, and music playing again. There was a big pile of brush, and when the bride and groom arrived they light it on fire, and they had to walk around it to represent a warm start to their marriage. I was then invited inside (which they claim no foreigner has ever seen this before) as the elder ladies prepared the room for the newly weds. I stayed in the living room and had tea and cake while they helped her out of her dress, and into her "night clothes". No one was allowed to see her face, so it was covered in a white piece of fabric. They brought a lot of food into her room and she ate alone, as the groom was with his friends in a different room. And after she ate and was dressed again, they made the marital bed by layering a bunch of mats on the floor until they were about 3 feet tall. There was a bunch of ladies that went in her room and closed the door right before they brought in the boy. Apparently they were doing a virginity test, but I don't know for sure. Then they brought the boy through the house and everyone sang and danced and clapped (this was HARD to fake this time) he also had his head covered so no one could see him, so his friends lead him blindly to the marital room. After a few minutes of celebrations they let him in the room and shut the door. We all left right away. Apparently 2 days later the same elder ladies check to ensure her virginity is gone, but again I'm not sure if this is correct.

So that's what I have neglected to tell you over the past month, once again I'm sorry and I will try to step up to my usual posting. Next week I will be going to Dushchanbe, so I should have some great stories from exploring the capital city!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Visiting the field is one of my favorite things to do, it really is satisfying to see great results. This week we went on a rather LOOOONG and BUMPY drive to Istaravshan and Gonchi to visit some potato projects. Last time they told me the road we were travelling was not bad... well they admitted this time that the road was bad. I don't mean 'bumpy' like pot-holes, I mean bumpy like the road disappears and there is a river in front of you! Then there is some gravel, a chunk of concrete you have to ditch, then a pothole that would swallow your 4 WD truck! And if there was a smooth patch of road for 100 feet the driver would FLOOR it before slamming on the breaks for the next obstacle!

The morning started early, we met at the office at 7:30am and by 9:30 we decided to stop at a favorite cafe in Gonchi for breakfast. I was doing alright by this time, so I had an egg and bread with butter, and a surprisingly good coffee (NOT Nescafe!). Well as I predicted this was a mistake... it tasted great at the time but with the bumpy roads it did not sit well! After taking a few Gravol and some fresh air when we stopped next I managed to keep it down though :)

We arrived at our first project to see what the farmers had harvested, they had just recently brought all the potatoes in from the fields. They were conducting tests on fertilizers: they would use certified fertilizer and test to soil to calculate how much to apply for one crop, for the other crop they used the cheaper, black market fertilizer and applied it as they normally would. The difference was HUGE, it was evident that the certified fertilizer worked, as the potatoes were roughly 4x the size! The quality was so much better that it doubled the price per kilo! The farmers were very excited to show us the results, and were very thankful to learn how to grow high quality potatoes.

We toured a few more projects, and the results were just as astonishing at everyone of them. We also visited a few projects where they were improving the quality and quantity of seed potatoes. I wasn't sure what the difference was between a seed potato and a cooking potato -the difference is seed potatoes are very small, they actually plant them to grow more potatoes. The details of this project are still a little fuzzy for me as we were asking questions through a translator and the answers weren't very direct... that is a major challenge when you don't speak the language and have to rely on a translator.

I forgot to mention that at every stop they would ask us to have tea or coffee before we left, and you have to agree or else it wouldn't be polite. After you agree to a quick drink they reveal a whole buffet in which you must take off your shoes, sit down and eat constantly until it is not possible to eat another bite. Then you realize you are late for the next project, and you ate waaay too much for the bumpy car ride, and you must leave to repeat the same process at the next project. This made for an interesting day, the last thing I wanted to do was get in the car for a several hour bumpy drive home :(

As we took off back to Khujand I was taking in the country scenery, there where beautiful mountains in the distance, and rolling hills of farmland. We drove through villages where there were more donkeys on the roads then cars, and kids were out playing everywhere. On one country road we stopped so I could get a picture of a donkey, we don't see them in Khujand and when I have travelled out side of the city it never seemed like an appropriate time to stop. But this time the car pulled over and Brad asked them if I could get a picture of ME on the donkey!! I was very happy, and I hopped on and rode around -an experience I will never forget! And the local people came from all over to watch the foreigner and have a good laugh, I don't blame them!

Then it was time to get back in the car... still feeling waaay too over-stuffed and not looking forward to it. I tried to convince myself I could make it home, but there was no chance... pull over please!!! I felt much better when I had an empty stomach, just a little embarrassing at the time!

After the long day we made it home safe and sound and with a truck full of potato samples, if anyone wants to be a taste-tester come on by and I'll cook up some fries :)

Check out google photos for some pics of country-side in Tajikistan!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Learning about a new culture is fascinating, and integrating into it can be a challenge. The term "culture shock" generally refers to having a difficult time adjusting to the new culture, and missing the way things were back home. I'm happy to say that I don't feel like I'm being effected this way... however I am more "shocked" by the type of cultural practices that are still accepted here. There are some parts of the culture that I love, like the traditional Tajik bread (non) and the beautiful outfits you see new brides wearing (see above). There is also a great obligation to spend time with your family and to care for one another. However as I have spent many hours talking with anyone that speaks English (I promise I'm learning Russian and Tajik!) and I have learned a lot about what the Tajik life is like.

When I am introduced to new people, most conversations start with "how old are you?" followed by "are you married? how many kids do you have?" And when I reply that I am 26, single and am not interested in a husband OR kids at the moment THEY are shocked! They think what is wrong with me!? You see in the Tajik life, it is not acceptable to chose the path I have chosen, that is to be an independent women with a career.

Many women here do have careers, and they are very well educated with university degrees, but the difference is huge. When a woman reaches her late teens/early twenties her parents arrange a marriage to a man she has probably never met. She cries and is sad, but they plan a wedding and she sits at the front... this day is not a happy day. In Canada your wedding day is supposed to be one of the happiest days of your life, here, I think it is probably the saddest. And after the wedding, the young, scared, sad virgin must let this stranger do things to her that in Canada would be considered rape. I'm sorry this is graphic, but meeting several young women who are currently fighting this arranged marriage really breaks my heart as I try to put myself in their shoes. And after the wedding the bride moves into the husbands house with his parents, and it is her role to care for EVERYONE. She must cook, clean, wash all clothes by hand... AND works full time during the day just like her husband. Then she must have babies, and raise them with little or no help from anyone.

I mentioned that I have met some women who are fighting this tradition, however many older women who I talked to say that it is not that bad, after you marry you learn to love each other; the cycle then continues as they arrange a marriage for their children. I have explained what it is like in Canada, that women and men "date" someone that they have met by CHOICE. And of course I had to explain what "dating" is, I said that it consists of going out for dinner, watching movies, anything where you get to spend time together to learn about each other and see if it turns into love. Then, after your in love, the man proposes to the woman and asks her to marry him. Well the Tajik people think this idea is unacceptable here, it would never happen like that. And the idea that the man and woman might live by themselves in their own house and share chores, absolutely not! They are women's chores, not a mans! Hmmm... I have a problem with this when the women is putting in 40 hours a week at the office just like the men! Isn't women working supposed to be a step towards gender equality?

Of course I cannot stereotype every Tajik and say that everybody accepts these ways and agrees with them, I have a few Tajik co-workers at MEDA who believe in the true meaning of gender equality. One even has a husband who helps share the chores because be recognizes she works full time too. And there are a few women who have made it past their early twenties and have managed to remain single and are looking for true love. I really respect these people who stand up for themselves and aim for a life in which they deserve, where they are happy and look forward to life going the way they choose it to go.

So that's my story about "culture shock", it really emphasizes to me that gender equality doesn't end with a working woman... it's how she is treated at home too, not just at the workplace.

(p.s. I updated google pics with pictures of several recent celebrations with co-workers and friends)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I have finally moved into the apartment that I plan on staying in for a while - if there is fairly consistent water and electricity I will most likely live here until April... if not, I may keep looking as it is difficult to go without such basics for a long cold winter!

The apartment is very nice, has large windows and is very spacious and clean. The best part for me is that the water didn't smell bad and there are no bugs sharing the place with me :) It's the apartment Susan was staying in, but I have now taken over as she flew out at 4am today (I miss you already Susan!). Tonight when I get home from work I will unpack and make it "my space". I'm excited to set out my new Tajik tea set on a beautiful embroidered felt that I bought recently, things like really make it feel like "home" to me. I forgot to mention one little issue - there is no kitchen - yet! They are planning on building one for me, but I said a hot plate and toaster oven will do (electricity is on more than gas) so I hope to have something to cook with asap!

I have posted pictures on google photo's of my old apartment, new apartment, and the MEDA office (it is quite beautiful too!).

So in the meantime of being kitchenless the Canadian Thanksgiving is coming up... so to get around this slight obstacle my co-worker Brad has invited me to use his kitchen and we plan on making a feast. We also have 2 Canadians visiting from the MEDA Waterloo office, so we are hoping they will join us to help us eat all of the food! It will be a challenge to cook the meal, first of all to find the ingredients always turns into a multi-market scavenger hunt... then we have to cross our fingers and hope that we will have electricity and gas, and if we're REALLY lucky, WATER!! (but that's pushing it...)

Anyways, Happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians, wish us luck with our cooking :)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Tribute to Food

(check out google photo's for more as usual)
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Anyone who knows me knows how much I love food - both to cook/bake it, as well as eat it :) So many (including myself) were concerned about how I was going to survive in Tajikistan. As a vegetarian I was told it would be very difficult for me... people who had been to Tajikistan laughed and told me "good luck!" They said in the summer it wouldn't be so bad, but when winter comes be prepared to starve. Well I have some good news, I will survive! I have a suspicion that these critics either 1. don't prefer to cook their own food or 2. aren't very creative in the kitchen! While the variety of fruits and vegetables may be limited in the winter, (and they may be more expensive) I've assessed the situation and I have NO worries.

When dining in a restaurant it is a challenge, I must admit. However it reminds me of the limited menu that I had in Canada when I first decided to be vegetarian - BEFORE it was trendy! There are always the few choices, maybe they aren't a real meal but it's sustenance, such as french fries... tomato and cucumber salad... I've even had them melt cheese on pasta noodles for me (they don't do spaghetti sauce, I don't quite understand why they have spaghetti then!?). So the real solution is to cook for myself. One of my co-workers who is from the states loves to cook as well and has quite a list of western dishes he's managed to find ingredients for, including my favorite... PIZZA!!! He had me (and Susan!) over for dinner wed night, and he had made pizza dough the night before so we could design our own pizza. Well we made a sauce from fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes with the juice and garlic, mushrooms, basil, salt and pepper. We simmered that while we sauteed some eggplant to use as a topping, chopped lots of fresh veggies, then grated the cheese. Well, the masterpiece was DELICIOUS... not bad at all!

Earlier this week Susan and I were invited for dinner by the owner of the restaurant/hotel she is working for (my soon-to-be landlord). He wanted to show us how they make their "national dish"... pilaf! It was quite amazing, of course when we arrived there was already a spread of fruit, nuts, salads, bread and candy. They then brought out the wine, beer, and vodka! (Just a note - don't start vodka unless you're serious about it, they don't joke around! After your first shot, about every 20 minutes your expected to do another one until you leave...) And all the while they had a fire going (we were in the courtyard of the house) to cook the pilaf on. They had all the ingredients measured out and ready on the table, just like a professional cooking show on TV. They added them one by one, and after about 2 hours...voila! Dinner is ready! But the worst part was that I had been eating that whole 2 hours, so by the time it was ready I was full... well, maybe it was strategic... they cook lamb in it :( But it was quite and experience that I will never forget.

So there it is, a detailed verdict on the food situation in Tajikistan... with a little creativity, it won't be bad at all!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Down to Work!

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This week I finally got out to visit projects that MEDA funds. The people here are faced with many challenges when trying to start or improve a business; first of all the country is post-soviet, so entrepreneurs simply were not allowed to exist a short while ago! Therefore business skills are lacking, they have never been taught anything about finances, business plans, etc. Secondly, it is a cash based economy; could you imagine barely making ends meet and trying to save enough money to start a business with 100% cash upfront!? Another large obstacle that the people must overcome is the lack of power, gas, and running water. Every winter, for about 4 months, these utilities are turned off the majority of the time. It's on for a couple of hours in the morning and in the evening... other then that it's just up to luck! And how are the citizens supposed to have successful businesses without such basics!

Enough of my rambling... so MEDA has given out several Small Matching Grants, where the people must save up half of the fund, and MEDA donates the other half. This ensures a sense of responsibility in the clients to make a success of the project because they have personally invested. MEDA also supplies them with mentoring from agricultural specialists, lessons on business skills, how to write a business plan, etc. And the results from the projects I visited were outstanding! We saw several greenhouses that are built into the ground to insulate them and help protect them from frost in the winter. People here love eating tomatoes, they really are a staple food item, and to grow them all year round would make for excellent business. We also visited a partner NGO's project where they built latrines at a primary school to collect urine; it collects in a cistern type storage facility and drys out in a couple of years to use as high quality fertilizer.

One of my favorite parts of visiting our clients is seeing how happy they are when we arrive. They are so excited to show us what they have done, tell us all about their project, and see our reaction! Then they tell us to have a seat on the topchan, relax, and enjoy an abundant amount of food and tea! The project we visited at lunch time filled us full of fruit, veggies, nuts, bread, candy, tea... it was unbelievable! Then the next project we visited after lunch had a huge spread of desserts - cookies, dried fruit, candies, tea and coffee... I was stuffed!

Another thing to mention is the truck ride to visit the projects, the roads are quite rough and the truck was not so smooth. I thought a couple of times my head was going to hit the roof when we went over the bumps! But apparently I was the only ones that thought the drive was bumpy, the locals kinda laughed and told me to just wait... those were some of the best roads in Tajikistan! The scenery along the way was also quite the site; sometimes we saw mountains, sometimes it was desert, and sometimes it was lush vegetation near a river.

Check out google photo's for more!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

It's a small world after all!

Saturday morning I woke up and wanted to get out of my apartment to explore. I decided to check out the museum that is by my house because that is easy to do alone, and I was hoping I could get by with a little English/Russian/charades combination. I was partly hoping I'd run into another foreigner there, but seriously doubted I would. And when I walked in, there wasn't a single person there... I figured out what I had to pay, and started wandering around looking at everything. When I was nearly done I heard another women speaking English! We started talking and I said I was Canadian, she said she was too! She asked me if I was the MEDA intern, I was shocked!? Apparently she is a consultant MEDA hired to develop the business at a local restaurant/hotel/cafe/conference center, etc. So she invited me to join her and her crew for the day!

So Susan and I become best friends (that's how things work over here!). We did some more touristy sight seeing of monuments, etc. with her interpreter and an owner of the restaurant she is working for, then she invited me back to her place for lunch and to hang out for the day. She is staying at the beautiful hotel/restaurant, and the food is fabulous, and the outdoor patio is a great place to spend an afternoon! We went there and we had some excellent salads on the patio of the cafe and chatted to catch up on each other. Then we decided to get some novels that she brought, and bring her laptop back to the cafe to play music and read and enjoy the scenery.

After a while we went back to her room to catch the 6:00 news, and we were having such a great time she invited me to stay at her place for the night so we could have dinner together then watch a movie. Sounded great as we both only recently arrived and knew no one else!

The next day we went for a walk to get out and see a little of the city, then we were taken sight-seeing once again to the "Tajik Sea" and back with many interesting stops along the way! We went to a stunning meeting house for a very large farming co-op, we drove through cotton fields, and fields full of fruits, with cows grazing in the shade of apricot trees while thier owners had them on a lead (no fences). We stopped at a carpet maker/seller who also makes slippers, and wool socks.

On our way back from the lake we stopped for some freah bread, they were making it right there. It was a round oven, and they throw the dough on the side of it, it bakes, then they take it out with a poker. And it's VERY yummy!

p.s. there are more pictures in my google photo albums

Museum of Asian Civilization (right by my apartment)

Me and Susan with a museum worker!
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Cotton... makes me feel guilty knowing how much work it is to pick this in this HEAT, and for very little pay!

Tajik carpets and slippers
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Finally back in the water! If only I had a bathing suit :(

A man baking Tajik national bread!
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I have posted some pics (finally!) but there are more on my Google Photo webpage:
Check them out!

p.s. I love hearing everyone's comments xo

This is by Panchshanbe Bazaar (about 10 min walk from apartment).

Tajik family walking infront of a Mosque.

A small section of Panchshanbe Bazaar (can you believe it!?).

Mmmm... famous Korean lady salads at the Bazaar.
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This is right by my guest apartment!
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Beate and Gary's dutcha (garden), so beautiful! And the shade is a result of grape vines growing on a trellis overhead, I could get used to this!
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Monday, September 10, 2007

A nice looong weekend!

I had only really worked 2 days and the next thing I knew it was a 3 day weekend! Finally I could see a bit more of the city and sleep as much as I needed to get in sync here!

Friday night was a beautiful, warm night (like they all are). My manager (Beate-Germany) and her husband Gary (US) took me out for dinner at a beautiful outdoor patio around the corner from my apartment. We met up with two other German expats who happened to be in Tajikistan for a short stint (honestly, people do come here!). We ate and drank, it was great to hear a lot of stories from these experienced development workers! The best part was that the one man was a Food Processing Expert!! He was here as a consultant for a juice company, and he has done a lot of work getting plants HACCP certified. I was thrilled to meet someone with a similar background to me in the development field as a specialist!

Saturday came and Dilya, the cook from MEDA's office, met me at my apartment and took me to Panchshanbe Bazaar, Khujand's largest market. It was unbelievable, it was huge and very very busy. There was rows and rows of vendors as far as the eye could see! They sold everything from spices, nuts, fruits, vegetables, fresh salads... and unfortunately I was almost run over by a man pushing a wooden cart with a large hunk of a dead animal that still had fur! I think it was a cow's leg or something, I tried to revert my eyes as soon as I noticed what I was seeing! This market is indoor and outdoor, and indoor up on the second floor is hundreds of vendors selling non-food goods such as clothes, shoes, and many random items that you would find in a dollar store imported from China. It was quite overwhelming, but worth the experience! The food is also so fresh here, and so cheap! I just need to work on my Russian/Tajik so I can understand how much things cost!

After the hectic trip to the market, Dilya and I stopped at a Turk/Tajik cafe and enjoyed nice and cold lemonade (more like orange pop to us) and PIZZA!!!! I was sooooo excited to have pizza here! And it was quite tasty with tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese, lots of cheese! After we ate we were so hot and tired I went home, showered and passed out. What a day!

Sunday was more relaxing, Beate and Gary to me to their Dutcha, it is another property they have that has a huge garden. There is a little house and a kitchen, but it is lovely to just spend the day outside in the garden. There was a little kitten when we arrived, Gary said he appeared the day before. Gary asked if I wanted to give him a bath so he didn't look so sad, so I put my old pet grooming skills to work! lol, poor kitten... didn't like the water much, but now he looks like a real pet! All he needs is a few more meals and he won't look so sad!

After I helped dig up a new bed in an area weeds had taken over, and we planted some new seeds. We collected a bunch of ripe vegetables and Beate made a delicious casserole with over a dozen vegetables, beans and cheese! In the afternoon we packed up and went home, they sent me home with a bag full of vegetables from the garden too! I thought that when I got back I would take a shower to cool off then wander on the busy streets where people seemed to be celebrating Independence Day, but when we got back not much seemed to be happening so I ended up resting all afternoon and slept through the fireworks, oops!

Monday was a holiday, so I went with Gary back to the Dutcha for a little bit while Beate had to work. We put some medicine in the new kittens eyes to clear them up, then re-heated some lunch and took care of a few things around the garden. Gary ended up picking me a huge amount of more vegetables, I didn't know what to do with so much food! But we shortly went home and I cleaned it all up and cut them up and put them in my fridge... boy is that a lot of work! Everything is organic here, so most vegetables come "with meat" and you need to really wash off the spiders, slugs, worms, etc. before they take over your apartment, yuck!

So for dinner last night, I cooked a little of everything that I had collected in my fridge the past couple of days, there was over a dozen vegetables, I probably can't even name half of them, but they were tasty!

p.s. I tried to post pictures but the internet connection is too weak, I will figure it out soon!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

First Impressions...

Well, I'm here! I had three great flights, from Toronto to Vienna, Moscow, and finally Khujand! All were relatively on time and my luggage arrived with me, I couldn't have asked for a better trip!

It was dark when I arrived so the drive to the guest apartment where I am staying was not very scenic, however along the road I could see a lot of bright flowers everywhere. It left a lot to my imagination, I couldn't wait to see everything in daylight!

I arrived at my guest apartment and was surprised how large it was! And very HOT! I opened a window so I could try to sleep, although I was a little concerned what bugs I was inviting in, but at that point sleep was more important. When the driver dropped me off he asked me what time I wanted to be picked up to go to the office, he suggested 10am. At this point it was 5am, but I agreed because I was anxious to see the office and meet people.

As I was getting into bed at 6am the sun started rising. I looked out the balcony windows and saw mountains! Yay! I grabbed my camera and took a quick pic before passing out. 10am came faster then I had hoped, lol, jet lag is rough! But it was a beautiful drive to the office, we followed a river which has huge mountains on the other side. There are also flowers everywhere, this time of year is very beautiful here!

At the office everyone was very friendly, I just came to meet people, use the internet, and to my surprise had an excellent home-made lunch of soup and fresh bread! You see, the office is a converted HUGE Tajik house, it has tonnes of rooms and very tall ceilings; and they put the kitchen to good use! There is a lady who comes in and cooks home-made meals everyday for lunch... they told me it would be difficult to eat as a vegetarian here, but I beg to differ! The last thing I have to worry about is starving... more like how to excersize enough to make up for the food!

After my short visit in the office, I went home and slept, and slept... until about 4am. Then I was wide awake. I hope I can stay up until dark tonight, then I should be on schedule by tomorrow! (oh ya, I also found an A/C in the living room window, so that helps me sleep now too)

That's about it, I haven't ventured into the city yet, perhaps tonight after work... and I'm looking forward to this weekend as there should be much going on around thier Independence Day (Sept 9).

Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

T-2 days and counting...

Hello all, I hope I will get a chance to update this blog regularly with interesting stories and pictures of my time in Tajikistan. I am preparing for my internship and I fly out in 2 days. I am almost all packed but I'm still running around with last minute errands, and trying to say bye to all of my friends and family (the hardest part!).

I am anxious to arrive and see the mountains and meet the Tajik people whom I hear are very friendly. I am also looking forward to meeting everyone at the office, especially those I've only corresponded with over email.

The project I will be working on is well under way and will be wrapping up during my time there. I look forward to seeing the difference MEDA has made in the lives of the Tajik people over the 4 year project. I hope to contribute as much as I possibly can to the MEDA projects in the next 7 months, and I am looking forward to the learning experience it will be!