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!