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)