Parasites, Weddings and Tajik Lessons

It was late afternoon when I piled into a small Lada with the Chief of Party and a national staff member who were returning to Shaartuz after a few days in Dushanbe.  After what seemed an eternity among the dust, car horns, shouts, animals and heat that swirled around us in Dushanbe, we finally made it onto the open road headed for Shaartuz.  Infrastructure soon gave way to rolling sand hills and grazing livestock as the Lada toiled the pothole-ridden road.  The car conveyed us through flat farmland and imposing rock faces; dessicated sand dunes and cheerful communities.  Three to four hours of incredibly beautiful landscape and good conversation, we arrived at our destination.

Shaartuz has now been home for two weeks, yet it seems that I have been here for months already.  It is a town in the southern corner of Tajikistan dotted by mountains, small villages and the borders of both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.  The town is arranged around two major streets and is almost purely residential.  Homes in this part of Tajikistan usually consist of a series of buildings arranged around a large central kitchen garden.  Each room of the home is accessed from the central courtyard with the kitchen and bathroom being outdoors.  The Mercy Corps office is located in just such a house.  It is here that I take all my meals and where all the staff works from during the day.  I am currently sleeping in a room in another part of town, just a short walk from the office.

It would be disingenuous to begin reflecting on my first impressions of Tajikistan without mentioning my epic battle with a fairly stubborn parasite.  The warning signs were there.  Rumblings.  Frequent trips to the squat toilet.  Fatigue.  Headaches.  For the first few days I decided to ignore it and thought that it was just something that I had eaten.  It was only when I could hardly hold down my food at a wedding I had been invited to that I realized that drastic measures had to be taken.  A few doses of Cipro later and I finally felt myself.  My formidable foe returned a second time, but I was ready.

Speaking of weddings . . . I have now been to no fewer than three.  I have arrived at the end of the Tajik wedding season and it seems that every one of my colleagues knows someone who is getting married every night of the week.  The Tajik wedding is a multi-day affair with dinners at each family's home, a religious ceremony with a mullah and a public reception with music, dancing and dinner.  I have been privy to only the public reception, but it is certainly an unforgettable experience . . . deafening live Tajik dance music blaring from the speakers, heaping amounts of food on the tables, a a unique brand of dancing on the dancefloor all while the bride bows to her guests throughout the night.  Despite the most recent Presidential decree outlawing weddings that cost a certain amount of money and delineating the times during which receptions could be held, the last wedding I attended managed to hire a singer named none other than Benji.  Dressed in red tuxedo pants, a shirt unbuttoned to his navel (somewhat scandalous for Tajikistan) and a black tuxedo jacket, he wowed the audience with a dance rendition of Michael Jackson's Thriller among other well known "classics".  To cap off the night, myself and the other intern here in Shaartuz, being foreign, were asked by the bride and groom through a line of intermediaries to make a speech.  I have to say, it was quite eloquent without preparation.

Wedding feast

In just a short period of time, the Tajik people on the whole have amazed me with their abiding hospitality, keen sense of humor, commitment to family and immutable smiles.  Every day that I travel to the villages in which I work, I undoubtedly see considerable poverty.  Yet, the mood is always light and the people always ready with a joke or sarcastic jab.  Being the awkward foreigner, I rarely understand the entire joke despite it being explained to me by an English speaking staff member, but the cheery atmosphere nonetheless points to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.  I have seen this in other collectively wounded peoples, such as the Cambodians.  Tajikistan and its people have come a log way since the end of its civil war in 1997.  The wounds are still there, but I am confident that with the continued effort of the Tajik people in concert with appropriate and truly sustainable development programming aimed at engaging youth to combat extremism and creating employment opportunities within the borders of the country - not Russia or Kazakhstan - that Tajikistan will again experience its proud history in the present.

Hayom, my Tajik teacher (far left); Aziza, his wife (far right); Rukshona, national staff (next to Aziza)

Salom Tajikistan!

It was 5:30am and I awoke from a fitful sleep between two large Russian men on an AirBaltic flight from Riga.  Despite my best attempts to drown out the noise of some pretty aggressive snoring on either side of me, I had failed.  The flight attendants announced that we had landed at Dushanbe airport and that we would be taken by bus to the airport "terminal".  Half-conscious, I rolled out of the plane, into the bus and arrived at the single diminutive building that constitutes Dushanbe airport.

After presenting my Letter of Introduction from Mercy Corps to the immigration officer and sitting in a small room with a handful of other scruffy looking foreigners, I received my visa and was sent off into the early morning darkness with my bags to meet my driver.  I immediately spotted him among the surprisingly large crowd of people standing outside holding a sign emblazoned with "Mercy Corps Tajikistan" on it.  Once in the car, he handed me my cell phone to be used during my time here, gave me a few papers to sign and then we were off, barreling down the empty streets of Dushanbe.  He pointed at seemingly innocuous buildings, describing what they were in Tajik and Russian.  I understood maybe a fourth of the explanations, but I appreciated the brief tour nonetheless.

After I arrived at the Mercy Corps guesthouse, I stumbled in the dark to my room, changed, and passed out.

Fast forward to 1pm . . . I awake from a death sleep to an empty guesthouse.  I had apparently slept through my alarm clock that had been set for 9am . . . good thing it was still Sunday.  I whiled away the next few hours unpacking a bit, eating and getting the lay of the land.  Eventually the other two Mercy Corps staff got home - one another intern, the other the Deputy Chief of Party of the program I'll be working on here.  The rest of my time in Dushanbe was spent exploring the interesting, albeit limited historical sites around town and becoming acquainted with the staff based in the Dushanbe office.

The original plan had been that I would travel to Garm, in the mountains, to work on the agricultural value chain portion of the program there.  Reports were issued, however, that a group of mujahadeen who had been imprisoned after the civil war here escaped and were a potential security threat in the area around Garm.  A quick turn of events and I was detoured to Shaartuz in the south near the Afghan and Uzbek borders for a couple weeks until the situation quieted down in Garm.

So ends my Dushanbe adventure and begins another further south . . .

Parliament in Dushanbe
The People's Palace in Dushanbe
Somoni Monument in Dushanbe
A beautiful local mosque
My guesthouse for a few days
The view from Mercy Corps Tajikistan's HQ offices in Dushanbe

Istanbul: Gateway to the East

I really can't think of a more appropriate place to have begun my journey to Tajikistan - where I will be working for the next 8 months - than Istanbul. A meeting place of myriad cultures for centuries, this city is both East and West bound into one. I have heard of the great allure of the city and have to admit that I have been touched by its magnetic qualities and can't wait to get back.

My journey here began late night in Boston. After taking a red-eye flight to Heathrow, I was presented with a seemingly grueling 7-hour layover. I didn't even notice, as I proceeded to sleep for almost 6 hours, interrupted only by a quick bite to eat at Wagamama. Hopping the flight to Istanbul, I was on the last leg of my trip . . . for a few days. I ended up sitting next to a young Turkish man who is currently studying international finance and regaled me with the virtues and vices of Turkish society and politics. It was interesting to get a young Turkish perspective on everything from the Turkish candidacy for EU membership to the best bars to hang out at in Istanbul.

After landing around 11:30pm and proceeding through the surprisingly quick immigration process, I hopped in a cab to my hotel in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Exhausted and desperately needing a shower, I scrubbed off the layers of dirt and sweat, watched a little BBC News and passed out.

The next morning I was awoken by the call to prayer and a beautiful day. Showering again for good measure, I headed to my hotel's continental breakfast. I was presented with one of the best free breakfasts I've ever seen anywhere in the world as well as the most incredible view of Istanbul and the Bosphorous from my hotel's rooftop terrace.

Recharged, albeit desperately jetlagged, I set off for a day of sightseeing. Istanbul can seem very intimidating at first with the various districts and mix of public transportation and walking. I found, however, that after a half day of getting my bearings, it is truly a very manageable city. I always like to get acquainted with any place I go by visiting the tourist sites on the first day and then wandering/getting lost/venturing further afield the rest of my time there. Thus, I spent the day visiting the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, the Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace. Each site presented unique insight into the history of Istanbul and the multitude of empires, civilizations and cultures that have shaped it. I was particularly impressed by Aya Sophia. An engineering marvel in its own right, its interior is incredibly awe inspiring. It feels intimidating and welcoming at once.
Aya Sophia
Interior of Aya Sophia

Basilica Cistern

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque
Topkapi Palace
Fresh pomegranate juice everywhere
The next day I ventured to the Beyoglu side of the city, also considered the epicenter of "new Istanbul".  A quick tram and funicular ride up the hill, I began my wanderings at Taksim Square, down the long Istiklal Caddesi, flanked on both sides by modern clothing and electronic stores.  Intermittently, views of the New Mosque and Aya Sophia on the opposite bank could be seen from the street, juxtaposing Istanbul's centuries old history with its burgeoning modern heartbeat.  The Pera Museum offered an interesting perspective on Istanbul from the eyes of European travelers of yore with paintings depicting everyday life in Istanbul and an obvious obsession with the Orient.

Around noon, I broke out onto the bridge linking Sultanahmet and Beyoglu and proceeded to elbow my way through the throngs to get my hands on a freshly cooked fish sandwich straight from the fishermen's boats.  It was the perfect introduction back to Sultanahmet.

The next few hours can only be relayed from a cloud of confusion and oxygen deprivation as I wandered through the Grand Bazaar and its miles of associated storefronts.  I am convinced that you can find anything you could ever want here if you're willing to take the time to bargain and fight the sea of people haggling over everything from blue jeans to saffron; light bulbs to lamb sausage.  At some point I saw light and smelled fresh air and made my way to an opening, exploding onto Beyazit Square.  I desperately needed tea and a trip to a Turkish hamam.

Walking a little ways from Beyazit Square, I found Cemberlitas Hamami.  Having heard of its beautiful construction dating back to 1584, I decided that this should be where I had my first Turkish bath experience.  After undressing and throwing on the requisite Turkish towel, I entered an incredibly beautiful marble room that was almost stiflingly humid.  I was instructed to lie down on the large central marble slab and wait for my attendant.  Light streamed in from the small glass holes at the top of the dome, both heating and serving as the only light source for the room.  The next 15 minutes can only be explained as a combination of relaxation and pain as my large, hairy Turkish attendant proceeded to soap me down and knead my muscles into submission.  Grunts of pain could be heard from others in the room.  Relaxation and pain surging through me, I fell asleep on the marble slab for probably 30 minutes, awaking ready to take on more of the city.

Fishing boats
Cooking up lunch
The throngs at the Grand Bazaar
Unfortunately, as it was the end of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr was on the horizon, many of the other places I had hoped to visit were closed.  This has only motivated me further to visit the city again.

Tajikistan awaits . . .