Monday, December 31, 2007

New Years Resolutions

Since leaving Tajikistan, I have created a mental list of projects to complete and materials to bring back when I return to Khujand in 2008. Here is the written version:

Continuing work at Waldorf School where I will teach singing and recorder playing to students and teachers alike.
Needed: Wooden recorders (The baroque ones, not like those we use at AWS)
Waldorf song books
Old (or new) pencils
Any artsy-crafty materials deemed appropriate for 1st-6th graders

English Club a group for University students to improve their English and learn more about Western culture--held at Waldorf School)
Needed: ESL books or word game books
DVDs and movies (American movies are very popular, but are all dubbed in Russian)

American Corner Discussions- The American Corner is a room in the library devoted to English speaking and has a variety of books on American history and politics. Each of the hundreds of books has a sticker in the front cover which reads "In friendship with the people of the United States of America." It is funded by the American Embassy and hosts free English lessons and discussions. While it is filled mostly with Tajiks (and run by Tajiks), Americans are very welcome. This past fall, I was leading discussions and answering questions on such topics as American politics and relations between Eastern and Western Worlds. To read more about American Corners in Tajikistan go to:
Needed: Good topic ideas
Questions for Tajiks (I'll post answers if any readers want individualized answers)

Russian Study- I seriously need to get serious about formally learning this language. I have already contacted a University Professor who has spent a year in New York (she speaks English!) who will tutor me privately in Russian. The cost of a one hour lesson is usually less than $5.

Farsi Study - Out of interest, I will study some Farsi, a language very similar to Tajik. The largest difference between the two is that Tajik is written in Cyrillic and Farsi in the Arabic script.

If there are any items on the "Needed" list which any readers have tucked away in a back closet, please feel free to donate them to the Waldorf students of Tajikistan. Everything is much appreciated, I guarantee.

Happy 2008 to you all!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sunday, October 28th

I admit I had a bit of a scare there in the middle of my Tajik adventures. Well, it wasn't a life-threatening scare or even one that made my heart pound fast and my blood run cold. It was just an instance where I felt like I had no control over what was happening to me and that all the steam I had initially put into my Tajik experience might puff out in one quick blow.

The source of my anxiety was my visa-- just one week from expiring and there was no certain way of extending it in sight. The woman on whom I was relying was out of resources, there was no place in Khujand to get it done, and an envelope (holding an American Passport) might 'get lost' in the mail on the way to Dushanbe. Also, the only possible way for any American Embassy to grant my extension was if the Waldorf School issued a letter (with the official stamp of approval) requesting my stay, but some voice in the head of the Director told her that the longer I stayed the more problems I (might) create with the government (since I have no teaching certificate) so she refused to write a letter. There was almost no option for me but to pack my small little suitcase and leave the country (there are stories of deportations to Uzbekistan when visitors over-extend their stay, but I'm not so sure about that). Anyway, I was about lost, and it was really the first time I have ever I felt like I had no say in the course my life was taking.

It almost astonishes me how sad I was those days. I had made my friends, established my routines, made plans to go to the Theater, and perform in concerts. Even I was a bit angry as well: at the Tajik Government for making a simple visa extension so hard, at myself for having to rely so much on other people (most especially for translation) and just at the pure fact that there was nothing I could do to get what I wanted. The tangles I would have to loosen to change my ticket on such short notice would also be hard to deal with.

And then by chance (though really, it was too good a happening to be any chance occurrence), on the way home from eating 'Krutob' (a favorite cheesy almost Mexican-tasting dish) with Canyon and some friends, I met Farid. I remember it too well. He was the best dressed person I'd seen around, with sunglasses and one of those small-brimmed hats worn back to reveal his uncommon curly hair. I noticed his distinct (and quite Italian) appearance before he got on the microbus, but forgot in an instant when other drama caught my attention: the microbus had suddenly stopped, the driver had gotten out and was running across the road where another, fortunately passenger-less, microbus was in flames. Canyon and I watched in amazement as all the cars stopped and the men (no women) ran, with their small water bottles and moldy rags in hand, to the aid of the other driver.

And then Farid interrupted us too interested spectators with his southern drawl, 'So where are y'all from.'

I was so surprised and the first words just fell out of my mouth. 'I knew you weren't Tajik!' I said almost too excitedly. It just went from there. He is, in fact, Tajik, just one of those few people who was able to plow through restrictions of both Tajik and US governments to go and study for a few years in the Alabama. (It has quite obviously affected his appearance, although the curls are still very rare amongst Tajiks.) He asked how long we were staying (it was days before Canyon left--he had decided not to extend his visa) and I told him my story. And then he was offering to help me--he had 'connections' he assured me--and two weeks (and $130 later) later I had a new one month visa in hand.

It's crazy how life falls into place. Things have always seemed to turn out okay in my past nineteen years and it was the first time that I had ever given up total hope but as things go, I still got what I wanted, and another adventure as well, for Farid turned out to be my brother in my new host family. But that's really another story for another time.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Greetings from Germany

Dear Readers,

I am currently in an Internet cafe in beautiful, historical, fashionable and modern Munich. It was a bit stressful, I admit, to return to such a place after the comfort and security of a simple system in a small town, but I am getting used to it all again and, of course, love this city.

My last days there in Tajikistan were some of the best. I hardly had a moment to stop by the internet cafe as I was so full with music classes, visiting families and going out with friends, not to mention my responsibilities as a member of my host family. My whole experience had such an impression on me, that I have plans to return back in 2008 to spend longer there learning the culture more deeply and studying Russian and Farsi. This blog will probably continue periodically until then, with some updates on photos, more cultural aspects as well as some details about my family, but will return to full swing when I arrive in Tajikistan again.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you,


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Did You Know?

What I've learned from the Tajik locals:

Tajikistan is 93% mountains.

The second highest peak in the world is in the Pamir mountain range in southern Tajikistan. It used to be called Mount Communism, but since has been renamed to Mount Somoni (after the first King of Tajikistan).

The currency is also named after Somoni. 1 US dollar equals 3.45 somoni. There are 100 dirams in 1 somoni. One loaf of bread costs 1 somoni 50 diram, a marshrutka ( microbus) ride costs 35 to 50 diram and a restaurant meal for five costs 12 somoni.

Every cellphone service in Tajikistan gives the first 10 seconds for free, so many people have multiple 10 second conversations in a row.

There are only 11 grades in Tajikistan.

There is no college application process. You can go to whatever University and study whatever you choose depending on your interests as well as money (Some courses cost up to $800 a year).

University students in the first, second and third courses are required to go cotton picking for an indefinite amount of time every fall to help their government (which pays for tuition). Teachers are supposed to go on weekends.

Money speaks really loudly here: for University diplomas, tests and grades, for driver's licenses and especially to get out of cotton picking. If you've got money (and I'm not talking millions, I'm talking hundreds) you've got it.

Enrique Inglasias is by far the most popular American artist here. Other well-liked groups include Pussy Cat Dolls, Rihanna, 50 Cent, Eminem, James Blunt, Maroon 5 and Kelly Clarkson.

The Tajik language is the same as Farsi (spoken in Iran), but the lettering system was changed from the Arabic script to Cyrillic after Tajikistan became part of the Soviet Union.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Tajik Culture:Dress

ookWhen Canyon and I arrived in Dushanbe, we both noticed that we were the worst dressed people around. And here in Khujand, we stand out, not only because of our light skin and "blondin" hair (our friend Jalil claims that even Canyon is considered blond) but also because of our relatively bedraggled dress. Personal appearance is almost too important to the people: as one Tajichka said,"if the people have no bread to eat, no food on their table, you will never know, because they will always dress themselves well. "

There are two basic styles of dress: traditional Tajik clothing, and Western styles which in many cases are mixed together. All students are forbidden from wearing traditional dress to classes, and school children are required to wear white tops and black bottoms. Most men and boys wear suits with well polished shoes and perfectly ironed shirts. The girls wear skirts, stockings and heels, all of which are creative and different in appearance: the skirts have many layers, or slant sideways, the stockings have flowers or diamonds or waves on them and the shoes are mostly round-toed heals with beads, sparkles or buckles. Working women most often wear dress suits, with matching jackets and skirts, unless their husband requires them to wear the Tajik dress. Jeans are very popular for men, boys and girls (not so much the women) as weekend or even everyday dress. None of these clothes are cheap, but all Tajiks know how to take care of them and often wear the same thing day after day.

Traditional Tajik dress, for men, is basically just pants and a collared shirt with a traditional or Muslim hat. The traditional hats are black with white embroidery and pointed at the top and lay lightly on the head. The Muslim hats are white or dark colors, flat topped and also just rest on the head. Women wear a long shapeless dress out of very colorful material with matching pants underneath. They often accompany this with heels, or at home, the comfortable, embroidered flat Tajik national shoes. Many older women cover their hair with a scarf (which does not usually match their dress), but few wear the hijab, which also covers the neck.

Marriage plays a huge role in a woman's appearance. Most married women take on the national dress at marriage as well as the head scarf for both work and at home, though for special occasions they have a skirt and beautiful jacket waiting in their closet. Only married women pluck their eyebrows, and they often paint them on again ( using natural homemade plant dye) as a full unibrow or two dark, thick eyebrows. Certain earrings are also saved for married women: the Tajik gold hoops with dangling pearls that cost at least $100 (their often included in a woman's dowry). For the girls, gold earrings in the shapes of flowers are very common.

One thing is certain about Tajikistan They may not have electricity or water or food, but they will always look nice.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Different Life

It's quite obvious that life is different here in Tajikistan, but I have not taken the time to really explain how. Here are a few points:

First of all we sleep on Korpocha, not in beds. They are homemade cushions on the floor, not too soft, but still not too hard. At first my back was sore from sleeping on them, but now it's a welcome place every night.

Also, every week, or sometimes a couple times a week, I wash all of my clothes by hand. I mix boiled water with cold water to make the right temperature, add detergent and one by one (starting with the light things so the water doesn't get too dark) I scrub all of my clothes with a bar of soap and my hands. I squeeze them out, and when they are all washed, I do it again. Then I rinse them all under a cold tap water and wring them very well and hang them on our indoor clothes line. It usually takes two days for them to dry, and then I have to iron out all the wrinkles in every item, including in towels and underwear, since the detergent can be rough on the skin. I've gotten faster now, so it only takes me a couple of hours to wash everything, and one hour to iron and it's a good skill to learn. One becomes very conscious of daily stains and dust as a result!

I didn't really realize until recently how lucky I am in my living situation. I live in an apartment which has a bathtub, hot water and a toilet. Yes, we have to sit on a stool in the bathtub and wash ourselves with water which comes through a rubber tube, yes we have to get up at 3 in the morning to turn on the hot water heater, if we want hot water in the morning and yes the toilet is old and leaking and breaking, but it's a better situation than some. At the other apartment, where I eat, they have to boil their own water, and have someone else help them bathe. At the outskirts of the city there are Tajik houses, where the bath room is a hole in the concrete, and the toilet is also a hole in the concrete. These houses are more spacious on one hand, there is a central courtyard, beautiful porches, but obviously personal care is a bit more difficult. Canyon lives in one of these houses and laughingly admits that he has taken three showers since we arrived.

Another aspect--there is no temperature control, from my experience. The closest was a radiator in one classroom, which obviously only works when there is electricity and a small heater in one home. In summer the weather gets very hot and in winter, very cold. Families burn coal in the winter when the electricity and gas are out. Quite, honestly, though, life is comfortable during this "transition" time of year. It's not too hot, not too cold, sunny and beautiful. The locals are dreading winter, however, as well as the rainy time of year which is just weeks away.

Every winter, the government turns off the gas and electricity for most of the day. Even now, they have started. It hasn't become too much of a problem yet. My family has a gas stove and a tea pot the plugs into the wall so at least we can boil water at any time. The water went out a couple of times, and goes out more often in winter, so there are huge water stashes at each house. I fill every water bottle I buy (I buy 1.5 liters of drinking water every day), fill it and place it with the others for future use in cooking and bathing.

Мусор - pronounced "moo'-ser," this is the Russian word for trash. It's everywhere. Someone forgot to introduce the Tajiks to trash bags, so the garbage is loose, even in public trash bins. These are scarce, and many times I have been out with friends who just litter--in the gutters, on the sidewalk, anywhere. It becomes someone else's problem. Tahmina has started using trash bags in her home as she hates this practice, but she's exceptional. And then, every now and again, someone puts all the trash in the bins on fire, leading to air pollution etc. True, the trash trucks come every week and store owners sweep the pavement in the mornings as do home owners on the weekend but it all ends up in the gutter, then. Only once have I seen the government trucks scooping the mud and trash from the gutters but this is not a common occurrence, as I understand. The Tajiks just have a different relationship with trash as well their out door environment.

Pets-- I have only seen two pets so far. Our neighbor has a cat who constantly whines outside the door. She could be there for hours, but they don't usually hear her because they have a sound-proof double metal door, so we often have to ring the door bell for her. The other was a cute little puppy dog, whom a man was walking across the bumpy gravel. There are many dogs and cats around, however, but they are homeless, starving and shaggy. Their eyes are sad, and in some cases, rabies has taken over their lives. They dig in the trash bins, scrounging for bits of watermelon or potato (both of which are very common here) or any of the people's edible мусор . They never cease to make me sad, these regected, uncared for animals, ignored by all and frightening many. One night as we were wandering home in the dark, our brother Kakramon, our "guide and protector," chose to take a different, longer route just because a few dogs barking ahead. He himself admitted being afraid of them and their diseases. I guess I always took animals shelters for granted; there certainly is nothing of the kind here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Waldorf School Pt. 2

There is actually a significant difference between school children here in Tajikistan and school children in the U.S. These children are incredibly expressively loving of teachers and Canyon and me as guests. Every morning when we arrive at school, they run to be the first to greet us, and hug us and and shake our hands and say "Zdrahst-vwee-tyeh" or "Guten Morgen"or (more rarely) "Good Morning." They take our hands and lead us to the class rooms asking us to join their main lesson class. The second grade girls even fight with each other over who gets to hold our hands and sometimes feelings get hurt. I have observed that all the students are very respectful of the adults in particular (even to the ones they don't know), always greeting them with the Russian "Zdrahst-vwee-tyeh"and shaking their hands.

I have spoken with Tahmina about the relationships between children and teachers and she admits that while such closeness creates friendship and trust, it also leads to some difficulty in the classroom. There is not the same respectful distance between students and teachers that I experienced as a student, which means that the children are sometimes able to use the teachers to their advantage. The fourth grade, for instance, when they didn't want to do Russian work one time when Canyon and I were visiting, yelled and yelled "Flaete! Flaete!" (meaning flutes ) and the class teacher was forced to give in to their requests. Despite a few instances like this, though, classes are quite energetic and participatory as a whole leading to a very lively learning environment.

Another difference is that the children are much smaller than those in the U.S. It's especially evident in the 5th and 6th grades where there are a couple of tall girls, but the boys and some girls look like the could be in third grade. It surprised us a lot at first, but by now we have gotten to know the children and used to the way they look.

We have a variety of tasks here. In the mornings we choose which main lesson to attend and teach morning games to the 2nd grade, or sing Headstrong Horses with the 6th grade. At 10:00 there is a 20 minute break and the 6th graders ask us to play basketball or tag. The next classes, 45 minutes each, depend on the day of the week. If there is a music class in any grade, we always to to help out with flutes and singing. So far we have taught Insy Weensy Spider (to the 2nd grade) and Headstrong Horses and Down By the Sally Gardens to the older grades. Teaching English words is difficult, but the students watch our lips very closely and eventually get the basic sounds. We also participate in sport classes and have taught the 2nd grade such games as Hill-Dill, Duck Duck Goose, Octopus and Circle Around Zero. (We have a good, understanding relationship with Eliana who really appreciates our presence, and so we attend her classes often.) Today, also, we attended a drawing class in the 6th grade, and Canyon drew a Greek picture (corresponding to their Greek history main lesson) on the board for the students to copy.

Translation is still a bit difficult, but as the teachers start to understand how we can help them it becomes easier. Before the music or sport classes, we usually come up with the ideas together and then I translate to the teachers --in broken German--who then translate into Russian. (It's also worth noting that Russian is a second language for most students, so understanding is not always clear, especially in the 2nd grade.) Sometimes in the 5th and 6th grades I can just teach them directly in German and they understand without translation. The third grade teacher is also an English teacher so it's very easy with him. But the first grade teacher doesn't know any German or English so we have only visited her class once.

We, and some of the other students, eat hot lunch in the little room by the kitchen every day during the breaks. For us it costs 3 somoni (about $1) and for the students it costs 1 somoni. Barbarosa also provides other small snacks such as candy, nuts, apples, bread or khurut, which is like dried yogurt rolled into small balls (I think they taste like the smell of goats, but they are quite a treat for the locals!) The day ends at 12:00, 1:00 or 2:00, depending on the day. The Kindergartners stay until 3:00 to nap and the 5th and 6th grades also have classes on Saturdays.

We have really been enjoying meeting and working with these VERY energetic students, but I must say that I have much admiration for the teachers who teach them everyday without tiring. By 1:00 Canyon and I are usually spent, from all the hand holding, the shouting, the basketball as well as trying to communicate effectively, and we leave to teach English or learn Russian with students closer to our age.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tajik Culture: Arranged Marriages

I've now had a couple of weeks to observe the Tajik people and their ways. The first thing I noticed upon entering Khujand was the colorful dress of the women, a huge contrast from the gray soviet buildings and the dusty roads. The natural environment, too, is generally beautiful -- the sky is very blue and mountains line all horizons, but there are few trees and no grass here in the city. Perhaps out of habit from the days of the Soviet Union, the Tajik people seem to care much more about preserving their culture --their national dress, the national dishes, their commitment to Islam--than about bettering their country as a whole--the economy, the roads and the buildings, for instance. Or perhaps it's just because they cannot.

Whatever the case, Tajik culture is still very rich -- remarkable that it survived the uniformity of the Soviet Union. All Tajiks are Muslim, but few fundamentalists live here in the city. Families vary on how committed they are to Islam, but Tajik traditions exist for all families, no matter how devout. One of these, and perhaps the most different to our Western traditions, is arranged marriage.

When a young woman or man is in his or her early twenties, thoughts shift almost exclusively toward marrige. Unions are made on practicality and the modest woman who knows how to cook and clean well is the choicest pick, though her beauty also plays a role. Parents, often it is the mother, choose the bride for their son who then goes to "look" at her to see if she pleases him. If she does, then her parents are contacted and if they too, and the girl (though her opinion is secondary), agree the marriage happens one month later. Often, the two have not done more than see each other once or twice and have exchanged just a few words if any. After the wedding, the girl goes to live with her husband and his family and her married life begins in a new family.

There is nothing close to Western "dating" in Tajikistan. If two people fall in love it must be secret and hidden. Young sons, no matter how "in love," rarely request to marry a certain girl because in the event that the marriage does not turn out, a mother would blame her son and turn against him. Sometimes these arranged marriages do not work and the couple ends up divorcing, or he has a woman on the side, or he marries another woman (polygamy is illegal, but since Muhammad had multiple wives some men do not hesitate to follow his steps.) Quite often, though, these arranged marriages do work, perhaps because of the sharp intuition of a mother, or perhaps because the son makes it work to please her (in Islam, the mother is placed #1, #2 and #3 in the family, the father placing only fourth).

Many many girls my age have spoken with me about marriage, since it's such a big event in their near future. One girl has a so called boyfriend, whom she sees only at the University (rarely in public) but she is taller than he, so she doesn't hope too much to marry him (his mother won't like her height). Another Russian girl is in love with a Tajik, but is having to fight the Tajik tradition of Tajiks marrying Tajiks to enter his family (she's even willing to convert from Christianity to Islam for him). My brother here, Kakramom, is 26 and unmarried, somewhat uncommon for a man his age. But he's in no hurry. His parents are searching and he went to "look at" a girl last week, but she didn't make his heart pound (he said so himself) so he won't marry her. (His sisters don't mind that he's taking his time, except when he asks them to wash his clothes for him and then they tell him he needs a wife, because it is not their duty.) Another girl claims to have a Tajik boyfriend in the Red Cross to whom she will be married in two years after she finishes University. Most girls, however, have never been in any type of relationship as it might diminish their prospects of marriage. (Friendships between guys and girls are not uncommon, however, and happen at school or in large groups. I went skateboarding with a group of 16 year old boys and girls from the 11th grade last weekend, for instance, and it was quite normal.)

Tajiks as a whole, though they love their culture and religion very much, are never imposing. They often watch Russian TV and are understanding that life is different in other places. They are not at all condemning of other ways of life, so the Russians who live here in Tajikistan have also managed to keep their own culture, seperate and different from that of the Tajiks.

I will have to write again about the food. the dress and music, for these are also different and very fascinating. Hopefully by that time, I can upload some more photos too.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Waldorf School Pt. 1

I have hestitated to write about the Waldorf School as I have been, until now, a little unsure about mine and Canyon's place there. We have just been visiting classes and getting to know the students and teachers for the past week and collecting ideas on what we can do to help and now are implememting our ideas. One unfortunately large draw back is the language barrier, but Tahmina and Rano (the school's founder) have been translating for us from English and German and we are learning to work around it.

The Waldorf School offers classes for children in the first through sixth grades as well as a non-Waldorf kindergarten and currently has over 100 students. It is housed in one building, a soviet kindergarten which had fallen into abandon and disrepair until seven years ago when the school was started. Seven rooms on the second floor have been renovated, not with any help from the government the teachers assure me, but by the teachers themselves alone. (Parents seem to be difficult in this school, as I understand, because it is a government school and many do not think it needs the help. It is also against Tajik tradition to donate money, even to the most needy situation, though many parents have plenty to give.) There are now six class teachers as well as an English teacher, a sport teacher, a handwork teacher, a painting teacher and a cook-- all of whom are women, except the third grade class teacher. Many of them have had at least one year of Waldorf training in Germany, but their teaching also has to (somewhat) follow government regulations. Most of them, too, are related: the sixth grade teacher, Jamila, is sisters with the handwork teacher and the painting teacher, and Babarosa (the cook) is the mother of Rano (the fifth grade teacher and also the school's founder) and the sport teacher. Her husband is the security guard.

The first floor of the building has only one usable room, the first grade classroom The rest are torn up from looting during the Tajik Civil War. All the windows have since been boarded up to hide the mess inside but the teachers are ever seeking means of renovating this floor so that the school can develop further. Next year, for instance, there will be a seventh grade but since there are not enough classrooms, alternative plans are being thought out.

The classes themselves are very reminiscent of Waldorf with many poems, songs, games, drawings and main lesson books. Sufficient supplies for all classes are, however, significantly lacking. The sixth grade handwork class, for instance, is making puppets out of scraps of cloth brought from home, cut by (very) dull scissors and sewn with bent needles. The Tajiks, as a people, are known for being very resourceful, so teachers are finding way to create a Waldorf education out of what is available, but it makes me realize how very rich my education was: there are no water colors, wooden easels or desks or faceless gnomes, nice German pencils or colored cheese cloth. The balls are flat and there are no jump ropes, hula hoops or javelins and not even a proper bathroom (just a pit in the ground, Tajik fashion). There is, however, a core group of teachers putting their efforts together, learning together and successfully creating an education center for these 100 children. There are many ways to grow, in singing and games, for example and you can be sure that these teachers are doing what they can to make this growth come about.

I must not forget to mention that "Madame Director," the government-sent employee with no relationship to Waldorf education, oversees all the teachers and tries, I'm sure, to understand this Waldorf system. There is also in EVERY classroom a picture of President Emomalii Rahmon as well as a poster of all the Tajik heroes. Ribbons of red, white and green (the colors of the Tajik flag) decorate the outside of the building, establishing a feeling of Tajik nationality and reminders that this school is not entirely free from the government's influence.

More about the students and our place there again. (To satisfy you, however, I will say that I have so far taught many music classes as well as a bit on the alphabet in Eurythmy and some games.)

Some Photos!

I have posted a link to the right where you all can see some photos. Unfortunately, I would like to post many more, but the internet speed is so slow that I'll have to do it gradually. Be sure to check back every now and again!


Thursday, October 4, 2007

My Life So Far

I am currently living in Khujand, in Microdistrict 18 with the Джумабаева family. There are three children living at home (Tahmina, 30, Padramon, 26 and Nigina, 20) and one woman, Medina, 24, who is married and lives with her husband and child. On my first day, Padramon (who likes to be called Garry) pointed to me and then to himself and said, "brother and sister." The mother and father's names are .....but I cannot speak with them much as they know no English (and my Russian has a long way to go). It is fun trying to understand hand gestures for a change.

Though I feel very welcome in their family, I am still treated as a guest. When we eat our meals (on the floor at a small table near the TV) I am always given the spot next to the wall, with a blanket and a pillow and a good view of the TV. We eat dinner together everyday, but for breakfast and lunch we are left to our own devices. Tahmina, Nagina and I all sleep in a different apartment in microdistrict 19 and nice walk away from the parents home. We leave this house at 6 am every morning and do not return until 7 or 8 at night.

The three of us girls sleep together in one room on kurpacha, cotton-filled blankets laid on the floor. Though there are three rooms in this apartment, we use only this one and the other two are virtually empty, save for one table and chair, the only furniture in the whole place.

At 7 or 7:30 in the morning after helping to clean up the breakfast, I take the microbus to the Waldorf School. Microbuses are essentially old and rickity vans with up to 15 people crammed inside. I stand by the side of of the road to wait my microbus and when I see 9A, 52 or 74 I wave out my hand and the bus (usually) stops to let me in. In the event that a seat is free, I sit, but most of the time I have to crouch for awhile until someone gets off. I hand my money (35 or 50 dirams which is about 10 or 17 cents) to another passenger who hands it to another until it makes it's way to the driver. The car is silent until someone wants to get off and then commands of "Dorit!" (Tajiki) or "Astanaviti!" (Russian) stop the van. Fortunately for me, my stop is right by a market where many people usually get off, so I don't usually have stop the bus, but every now and again I say "Dorit!" myself and then the driver looks at me funny before stopping.

The school yet another walk, not too far, through the dust and cracked pavement that is all Tajikistan roads. The school grounds themselves are all dust and pavement, and building is grey concrete "Waldorfianized" by some colorful cut glass in the shape of animals.

I stay at the school for just five hours, from 8 until 1 and I eat lunch there: hot Tajiki dishes and tea prepared by the school cook, Barbarosa. At 1 o'clock, I go home to nap and study Russian or to the internet cafe (where I am now). And then, soon enough, it's dinner time, and we are all tired and we watch TV and go to bed.

More again.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

German anyone?

Well, I had planned on writing a nice long entry about my family and daily life, but suddenly a girl came up to me here in the internet cafe and started speaking with me in German. It turns out she is a German student at the University and will be in the English club Canyon and I will be leading. And then her friend, who is the owner manager of this (very nice) internet cafe just told her (to translate to me in German --to translate to Canyon in English) that we can use this internet cafe as much as we want with out paying. He will also come to the English Club. This language game is fun. Neither one of them speaks ANY English...

It's funny that I've spoken more German here than I did in those 24 hours I spent in Frankfurt on the way here. Most teachers at the Waldorf School speak German because they recieved their Waldorf training in Germany, and there is a very good German teacher, Rano, who teaches in area high schools as well as universities, so her students are competent with the language. Many people want to learn English, though, as going to America is the biggest dream for them so we hope to be able to help them with our English Club.

10/9 SORRY! There is only one club, the English Club. I meant to write that but wrote German instead, so sorry about the confusion.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Hello From Tajikistan!

We arrived yesterday at 9 am and are now with our hosts in the lively town of Khujand. The traveling was suprisingly easy and I think the largest problem we had was when the inspectors at the Frankfurt airport thought that the chalk Canyon had brought for the school was cocaine. On our way to Istanbul we met a young man, Fety, who had worked the whole summer in New Braunfels at Schlitterbahn! What are the odds?
Our baggage arrive in whole pieces and we were even suprisingly met at the Dushanbe airport (at 3:30 am) and given air tickets to Khujand.
The flight to Khujand was on a very rickety plane which held 40 people. We could see the brown mountains below us very clearly. I was surprised to learn that Tajikistan is 93% mountains!
So that's all for now. Just a quick hello. I'm at an internet cafe in Khujand just around the corner from the apartment where I eat with Tahmina and her family. Soon I will buy an internet card for her laptop so we can use it from home.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


So, I was told that I should include this as part of the blog even though it only partially pertains to Tajikistan.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I ventured into Jackson Ruiz Salon at 9:15 on a Friday night. The purpose: to cut off all of my long hair. Traveling would be easier if I could jump out of the shower, shake my head and carry on with my life without having to worry about catching a cold from a wet head. I wanted it ALL off.

If there are any readers looking for a good salon, I highly recommend Jackson Ruiz. They treat customers like goddesses (or gods, as the case may be) for a fairly reasonable price. I changed into a silk robe and during my hair wash was given a head and neck massage while I inhaled scents of lavender oil. I also got a hand massage during the actual haircut. And no tips or gratuities are accepted.

Before this hair washing though, I had a rather brief consultation with the hairdresser. She looked at the photo I had brought in (of a woman with VERY short hair) and immediately said, "I've done this before. It's just too drastic."

With that, she put my hair in a ponytail at the nape of my neck and chopped it off. "Say good bye to your hair" she said as she waved the ponytail in front of my face. She then put it in a package and sent it off to Locks of Love. 10 full inches of it.

I basically just let her go with my hair. As she chatted to me about women's colleges and China, she was so keenly observing the shape of my face and cutting my hair accordingly.

Minutes later she was finished, having cut the back and bangs fairly short, while leaving long pieces by the ears and cheeks. "You can still look hip while you are in Tajikistan" she commented and I could only smile.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Practicalities

Now, I'm going to admit that I was way too reliant on my parents for the beginning part of the planning. They were the ones to stay in contact with our host, ask all the right questions and start researching flights. I let the summer slip away without thinking that the possibility of NOT going to Tajikistan might be a reality. My mother arranged for the immunizations (Hepatitis A & B and Typhoid shots, plus prescriptions for infectious diarrhea treatment and malaria prevention); we sent our passports to Washington with $230 to get the Tajik Visa stamp (they are supposed to arrive just days before we leave for Frankfurt!); I invested in a Steripen to sterilize water for hand- and facewashing or teeth brushing etc.; I laid out my clothes, found an old violin case perfect for traveling (of course I'm bringing my violin: I could not do with out it!) and put in my two weeks notice at work. And then the eye-opening news came: the cost of traveling from Frankfurt to Dushanbe round trip (we had FINALLY found a route through Istanbul) was $1700 which was far more than either Canyon or I could afford.

So, like good Waldorf families that we are, we had a meeting. We discussed hosteling in Europe as an alternative, dreamed of taking the Orient Express to Istanbul instead of flying, and almost totally fell into giving up on Tajikistan. It was too hard and expensive. And then I just took a lap top and for the first time (admittedly) started my own research. It was too close to give up, I thought, and I had become attached to the idea. By recommendation of my mother I googled "travel to Dushanbe." I don't remember it all exactly, but I did find a list of flights from Frankfurt to Dushanbe and low and behold they started at $1000! (still expensive, but less than before). The issue became deciphering the German language as most of the booking sites were operated out of Germany (we interrupted our friend's nice Sunday afternoon by calling her in Munich a few times). My somewhat adequate German got me to understand that everytime I tried to purchase one of those tickets there was an error. I sent out an e-mail (in very broken German I'm sure) and tried calling one of booking agents, but was put on hold for half an hour. The one thing, we did notice however, was that all of these booking sites were recommending tickets through Turkish Air with one stop in Istanbul.

Our answer was there all along. Right in front of us. Why don't we call Turkish Air? It was easier than we could believe. Weeks of attempts when it took us but thirty to minutes to call Turkish Air, find the flights we needed, call their New York base and find that we could purchase the tickets there and then.

So now, just one week before we are to depart to Frankfurt, we are the owners of tickets to Tajikistan.

Oh yeah and PS. We still don't have tickets to Khojand from Dushanbe, but that seems like pie now that we can get into Tajikistan.

THE NEW PLAN: Since the tickets to Dushanbe don't leave Frankfurt until September 26th, returning there on November 19th, we have delayed our flight out of the US until the 24th.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why Tajikistan?

Tajikistan is certainly a random part of the world to travel to! Most people have never heard of this country even though it borders Afghanistan and is near Pakistan. It is the least developed of all the "Stan" countries and probably the least known.

I heard of it first when a woman from Khojand came to my high school to get perspectives on American Waldorf schools. She came and gave a talk to my senior class about how she had founded a Waldorf School in Central Asia, (with the help of a couple Germans) which was barely five years old and still struggling. At that point the thought of a gap year before college had entered my mind, but I had not made any decisions yet. This woman caught my attention, though, someone who had come a long way to learn about the Waldorf education system and had invested herself into the cause. Canyon (who had similar ideas on a gap year as me) and I ended up meeting with her on numerous occasions, talking about the Waldorf School, as well as Islam, Internet cafes and soccer. We were fascinated by her stories of growing up in a fairly strict Muslim family which she escaped when her father realized her academic potential and sent her to University. Her proud descriptions of Khojand were not that of an impoverished developing town, but of a lively up-beat city where public Internet (costing $.38 an hour) and nightly "foot-ball" games were the norm. By the end of our conversations I was there, in my mind and dreams. And then she extended to both Canyon and me an invitation to come live and work with her at the new Waldorf School in Khojand. When again would I ever be able to travel to such an exotic place? Have the opportunity to be so instrumental in the creation of something I had just spent 13 years immersed within? So I took the opportunity without a second thought.

Though we did ask her about such practicalities as flight arrangements (she went through Moscow) and cost, we really did assume traveling to a place hardly noticeable on a globe to be far easier than it really was. Here we are, just a few weeks from leaving and do we have our tickets or visas? No.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


With every text I read about Tajikistan and Khujand I get more interested in this country and city. Khujand is on the Silk Road and supposedly dates back 2300 years when Alexander the Great founded his "Alexandria Eschate," his furthest Alexandria. It is in northern Tajikistan, not too far from the Uzbek capital Tashkent. In fact, many Khujand- dwellers (Khujandians?) are of Uzbek ethnicity stuck in Tajikistan because of an unnatural boundary line drawn after the fall of the Soviet Union. Much of the country fell into poverty after the fall of the Soviet Union and electricy and gas usage are spotty and unpredictable, especially in the winter. It is apparent that the Tajiks miss their Soviet days, a fact that is a point of interest to me, and one I wish to explore more in my visit. The official language is Tajik (a relative of ancient Persian using Cyrillic) but Russian is spoken in public and at school. The people are 80% Sunni Muslim, the average yearly income per capita (as calculated in 2005) is $355.30 and the geography is 90% mountainous. What a country for me to have never heard of before April of this year!

But getting there is very difficult. Okay, it seems like a self-evident fact- traveling to an obscure under-developed country of 7 million is like twisting cold steel with your hands- but it seemed to me that I was only a few clicks on away from Tajikistan. Not so.

Firstly. Canyon does not have a passport, and won't have one until we buy tickets so he can expedite it. Secondly, we cannot buy tickets without passports. It's the chicken and the egg incident. We also had trouble finding flights out of Tajikistan in November, as the airlines don't post flights more than 40 days ahead. And if we stay in Tajikistan more than 60 days the government will supposedly come after us. We contacted numerous travel agencies, most of whom could not help us. "You just picked the wrong area of the world to travel to" one said. But a couple did respond positively.

So, we chose one who had the most favorable deal and called him up at his Brooklyn office last week to work out the details. Dan (he must have Americanized his name, because he had a distinct Russian accent) seemed nice and helpful. He arranged a flight from Austin to London to Moscow directly to Khojand for just $2,000. There was a three week stop in London on the way home so we could wander Europe for awhile before returning to the States. It seemed like the answer to our prayers. But wait. We would have to change terminals in Moscow, go from the International Terminal to the Domestic one and this would entail collecting baggage and getting a double-entry Russian visa for $225. Okay. We'll pay the money. I mean, we're going to Tajikistan after all and it's not going to be too easy or cheap. But then- he wanted our original passports and money sent directly to him after he purchased the tickets. What? Mafia. (My aunt pointed it out). But whether he was mafia or not, I need my passport with me and it made no sense at all. He did not even have a real profile on the Internet, just a self-set-up page on tours he arranges for St. Petersburg. We should have taken that into account before. So here we go back to step one again.

UPDATED: We're going through Frankfurt. We decided to take the plunge and buy the tickets so Canyon can expedite his passport. We'll go from there to Istanbul or Astana (Kazakhstan) to Dushanbe to Khujand. We still have to work out visas and immunizations as well as booking those last legs of the trip before we can embark (in a mere three weeks!). We leave September 18th at 12:55pm.

Thank you to you all who have said you are praying for us. Perhaps we are too young and reckless to realize the leap of faith we are taking, but it's thrilling to leap anyway. We are glad to have our parent's support in this endeavor and have had many reassuring conversations with our hostess in Tajikistan and an acquaintance who has fearlessly traveled by foot and public transport all the way from Switzerland to China through a couple of neighboring "Stan" countries. Personally, I am enlivened by the thought of this adventure (which, it has been pointed out, is far more than an adventure) and not apprehensive about the change of scenery, but this is perhaps only because it is not yet a reality for me. More to come.