Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Cotton Picking

I spent my first Sunday in Khujand cotton picking. Arriving at a parking lot in central Khujand at 7 am, we (four teachers from the Waldorf school, Gertruda a German friend of the school and myself) crowded into buses for the one-hour ride to the fields. I remember the ride well as I, already overwhelmed by language and cultural differences, attempted to understand the German chatter of Gertruda as she relayed stories of life in Kenya and Sudan. The other Tajik women on the bus, worn and tired from the fasting month of Ramadan, started muttering and complaining about us two foreigners talking (rather loudly) in a strange tongue. I felt so ashamed that already I was appearing as a loud American in Tajikistan yet that was unfortunately not the last time strangers reprimanded me for being too loud in public transportation.

I actually enjoyed the cotton picking because it gave me a chance to talk with and get to know Tahmina. We picked slowly, rested frequently and at lunch time fell asleep under the cotton bushes. But fortunately for us, we had to do this only once.

I have mentioned it before in the blog, but since it does not cease to astound me, I will write it again. The government requires that all university students pick cotton for an indefinite period of time every fall. Teachers are supposed to go on Sundays, their only day off from school. Starting in August, students live together, eat together, sleep together and pick cotton together not returning home until November or December. And this is because the government is committed to paying salaries and tuition.

At the end of the day I was tired and my back was sore, and the buses were over full with sweaty grumpy people, so I stood the whole way home. Tahmina and I, together, had picked only 40 kilos of cotton in eight hours, about 40 kilos below par. But we just laughed it off and were glad to return to the city, thankful that come morning we only had to teach children and not pull white fluffy lumps off brambly bushes for days on end. We decided not to return again.

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