Monday, July 30, 2007

I just *knew* diplomatic status would come in handy at some point!

So this weekend was supposed to be my adventure weekend. I was going to get out of Dreary Dushanbe and into the mountains that Tajikistan is (comparatively) famous for. I had hooked up a travel partner that spoke Russian. We had plane tickets to Khojand for Friday night after work. What could go wrong?

For the first day and a half, nothing. We flew up on Friday night on what could generously be describes as a rickety Russian built Antonov. Most of these things are a generation old and feel it. One actually crashed this weekend in Russia proper, and Russia and the former Soviet countries actually had a worse airline safety record than Nigeria in 2006. Anyway, this plane shook. And the cabin wasn’t really pressurized, so it was a little tough to breath at 20,000 feet. And it was beastly hot. And the approach to the runway was a little rocky, as in it seemed like the pilot figured out at the last minute that the runway was actually 500 feet to the left of where he was aiming. But no worries, landed safe and sound, took a taxi to town, and checked into the Hotel Leninabad. The hotel was fine except for the mosquitoes and the fact that the room didn’t have a shower. But eh, this is an adventure right?

So the next morning we were up early to see the largest statue of Lenin left this side of the Urals, 22 meters high, and then set off on our adventure proper. We took a minibus to the town of Istaravshan, with its historic mosques and hoppin’ Saturday bazaar. The people on the minibus were fascinated by us. They asked a million questions, my two favorites were “Does your father get paid on time?” (a bit of a rarity here) and “How much does the Tajik government give you to be a tourist here?” They were shocked and appalled that we weren’t getting anything. Why the hell were we here then? One guy was so outraged he paid our bus fare.

The bazaar was neat, huge enclosed space that smelled vaguely like tea and soap. They sold everything under the sun, from dried fruit to car parts to a real-life butter churn. (No joke, we actually saw women on the side of the road churning butter.) I took a couple pictures, one of a table selling hammers and sickles, one of the watermelons (this country is saturated with them this time of year), and one of the old guys selling snuff. This guy was very emphatic that it was really stupid to take pictures of watermelons, and that he made a much better subject. We then walked around the old town, saw the old mosque, hitched a ride with an agricultural NGO consultant from St. Paul, Minnesota, and set about hiring a driver to the two day trip through the mountains back to the capital.

Now getting the right car and driver is important. The car has to be sturdy enough to make it up the hills, and the driver has to be a decent enough human being not to leave you at the top of the pass unless you give him $100 and one of your kidneys. The market was nuts and thank goodness the person I was traveling with spoke Russian. We finally settled on a German built Opel driven by a gold-toothed guy named Xoet (pronounced Hi-Oat and meaning “life.”) Little did we know that we had just signed on to the Tajik tour of our lives, chauffeured in the Magical Amphibious Opel by the Indomitable Xoet himself.

A little background on the trip. We were leaving from Istaravshan and going across the Anyi mountain pass (3300+ meters) and to the lakeside town of Iskander-Kul, where we would spend the night, before crossing a second higher pass the next day on the way back to Dushanbe. The road has been having a little bit of a rockslide problem of late and is in the process of being rebuilt by huge teams of Chinese laborers. As a result, two sections of road on either side of the Anyi pass are closed to traffic during daylight hours while the crews work. Someone had told me this before I left, letting me know that it would add 8 hours to the trip if I got through at all, but eh, this is an adventure right?

So we set out. We hit the first part of closed road, but Xoet was ready. He drove down the hill and into a river bed that ran parallel to the road. This wouldn’t have been as big a deal as it turned out to be had it been a DRY riverbed, but someone had forgotten to mention this to the river. It was here that we got the first taste of the Magical Amphibious Opel. Xoet just drove through the river. There were sheep and goats grazing on the banks that didn’t even blink as we cruised through. I guess this is a standard practice. Xoet just smiled and told us to think of all the German engineers that had put some much time and effort into designing this beautiful machine. How they would be crying if they could see it now!

Anyway, we made it through the river and back up onto dry land. Then we hit our first real checkpoint. It was manned by a Chinese guard that didn’t speak any language other than Chinese and was not under any circumstances going to let us cross. We would have to wait four hours until 7 pm, then we could continue the last 6 hours through the treacherous pass to Iskander-Kul. Now Xoet hates the Chinese. He resents the fact that there are no jobs in Tajikistan and more than half of the male population has to go to Russia for part of the year to try to squeeze out a living doing manual labor, but thousands of Chinese are imported to do local construction. And there is no way that this Chinese guy is going to stop Xoet from showing his extra special American tourists the pass during the daylight. We would miss the panoramas of the mountains!

So Xoet kicked the Opel into low gear and took off up a dirt track. We eventually came to a farm house. Xoet set us up with a couple of bowls of delicious fresh goat-yogurt (which I would sadly soon discover all too vividly was also un-pasteurized) while he checked out the lay of the land. Back in the Opel. Down into another river, through the river bed, around an un-manned Chinese roadblock and onto the closed road. We drove past the construction crews, who were a little bewildered as to how we got there, and up to the edge of the roadblock on the other side. Here is where we hit a little snag. The guard on the other side was *pissed.* We shouldn’t have done what we did. And he was going to be damned if he let us pass. We needed to turn around and go back.

This was a problem. The guard spoke only Chinese. Xoet was apoplectic. All his hard work and only a flag studded string separated him from the pass. He gunned the car a little at the string, but the guys around grabbed a bunch of rocks. Xoet backed down. The drivers waiting on the other side of the string thought this was hysterical.

So I decided that it was my turn to try to fix the situation. I got out of the car with my United Nations passport that I use for official World Bank travel. It reads in part “The Secretary-General of the United Nations requests all those whom it may concern to extend the bearer courtesies, facilities, privileges and immunities which pertain to his (or her) office, and to facilitate by all suitable means the journey and mission on which he (or she) is engaged.” And it fortunately says this in all six UN languages, including Chinese. I smile and hand it to the guard. He reads it. Apologizes. Gives Xoet the look of death, and lets us pass. Xoet was very proud of me. Off to the pass!

The trip up to the pass was on this narrow winding road with great vistas. We stopped on the way up to do a little hiking because Xoet knew that the other side of the road was going to be closed and that we weren’t going to be able to wiggle through that one. The top of the pass itself was a great view of the mountains. Then we hit the second block. Traffic was lined up because it had been closed all day. Xoet sneaks as close to the front as he can. He tells us to be ready. We aren’t exactly sure for what, but we stay close to the car anyway. At 6:30 the guard whistles that he will lift the gate. Xoet yells for us to get in the car. We pile in and Xoet guns the engine. We blast past the other cars and take off down this narrow winding pass edged by a sheer cliff, Xoet yelling “Rally Car” and “Schumacher!” The situation is this, the road is partially blocked by landslides, and in many places only one car can pass at a time. When they open the gate, they let traffic in in both directions. It is key to get as far down the mountain as you can before you meet on-coming traffic. (Xoet gave us a beautiful demonstration of this as we almost smashed head on with a car coming the other way as we swerved around a bolder. The roads are all dust so it is like driving in a blizzard. We didn’t see the second car until it was nearly on top of us.) At one point when we were waiting to get though a narrow point, one of the Chinese laborers jumped in the car with us. We couldn’t talk to him, so he just rode in the back with me for a while until he signaled that he wanted to get out. Can you imagine something like that in the US?

So we traveled along for another couple hours before reaching the lakeside hotel. We are hot and sweaty and filthy from the trip. All we want is a shower, some food and to crash. Now the cabins are described as “rustic,” as in no running water and the distance to the nearest pit latrine is best measured in kilometers. Super. Xoet brings us a couple bottles of river water to wash up as best we could. Dinner consisted of eggs, sausage, bread, more goat-gurt, and a bottle of horribly sweet local brew. And we had to drink the whole thing going around with toasts on every glass. Xoet had been disappointed that there was no decent vodka, I was secretly relieved. After dinner we collapsed, with my travel partner and I taking one room of the cabin and Xoet the other. In the morning we found him sleeping in his car. He said that he doesn't like to sleep alone, so at least he could sleep with his car.

Here’s where the wheels come off. I when I woke up I was feeling a little funny. We walk around the lake a little bit, see the President’s summer house, and by the time they set off on a hike to the nearby waterfall, I am downright green. Xoet pulls out the cushion from the backseat and puts it under a bush for me to sleep on while they hike. By the time they are back, I am puking my life up. I spend the rest of the day curled up on the backseat in the fetal position, having to ask Xoet to stop every hour or so, so I can get re-acquainted with whatever I tried to eat or drink in the last hour. It was a long 7 hour trip through the second pass and down.

What little of the trip that I was able to see from my little ball of torment seemed nice. This pass was higher and there was still snow. Xoet brought me a snowball to put on my forehead. At one point we were driving next to a cliff still covered in ice despite the broiling temperatures. And the view of the Fan mountains from the top of the second pass was incredible. We stopped to get gas again too. The fun part of getting gas is that they have old-fashioned gas pumps, not that they work, the gas is just stored in jars on top of them.

Eventually we made it back to Dushanbe, paid and thanked Xoet, promising to pass his contact information on to anyone that would like to make the trip (let me know if you are interested). I went back to my hotel, thanking my lucky stars that World Bank consultants are well taken care of, and took a long hot shower. I felt a little better, and by the time I went to bed, I was able to keep water in my stomach again. I’m on the mend!

So I think this will be my last entry for a couple weeks. I am headed back to the US on Thursday morning, and I am hoping for my sake that nothing interesting enough happens in the next couple days to be worth writing about. Next stop, as far as I know, is Indonesia sometime in September.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Mission to the Rayons of Republican Subordination (and back with fleas)

So not too much interesting going on here in Dushanbe. I am have been trying to get out of the city a little bit, partly to see this weird wild and wooly country, and partly because, like I mentioned, not too much interesting going on in Dushanbe. I had grand plans for a cultural tour last weekend, historic sights, museums, shopping, all cut tragically short by bad doner kebap. I spent all night Friday and most of the day Saturday battling massive food poisoning. I got up Sunday morning with the grit and determination of a passenger on a cruise ship under fire. I was going to have FUN god-damned, and no amount of personal discomfort was going to stop that.

I decided to head out to Hissar, which used to be an 18th century fortress run by the local big man under the emir. That was of course before the Red Army blew the whole complex into dust. The government has gamely gathered enough of the scattered stones to reconstruct the gate, which is nice enough. There are also a couple of big hills on either side of that gate, which the Lonely Planet promised would offer panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. What I actually achieved was scratching the hell out of the palms of hands as I tried to use thorn bushes to slow my decent as I slid and scrambled up the nearly sheer face of this stupid hill. (The thorn bushes that covered the mountain side did at least have interesting flowers on them, which I dubbed Taliban flowers in honor of their beards.) The view was less than spectacular. I decided I had had enough cliff for one day and took the long winding path down the backside of the hill, carefully avoiding all the Tajik couples making out – completely oblivious to the presence of both me and the sensitive Taliban flowers. At the base of the gate, there was a Tajik wedding going on. It seemed mostly like an American wedding, except for the bride having that strange uni-brow thing, and the fact that all the music sounded like a snake charmer’s cover of the Star Wars Cantina. At the caravan house museum across the road, I saw some dusty relics and befriended five Canadian kids working here for the Aga Khan foundation. I used some of my copious World Bank per diem to buy them lunch, they used their Russian and Tajik skills to half the amount of time it took me to get there anywhere on the local public transportation system. Fair trade in my book.

First half of the week centered on me working in the office and getting my questionnaires ready for pilot testing. The last two days in the field. I spent an inordinate amount of that time worried about fleas. You see, the consultant that I was working with went to do some pre-pilot testing among poor communities in the capital last week and came back covered in welts. She explained that most poor people in this country have fleas and that you very often catch them from proximity. Isn’t it the same in Africa? [Editor’s note: NO!!!] She then told a “humorous” story about the last Washington consultant that she worked with, who got fleas during pilot testing in the mountains, brought them back to her hotel room, where they got into her luggage, brought them back across the ocean, where they multiplied like a Bulgarian wildfire, and infected her entire family and household. Cost a fortune to kill them all. Hardy-fucking-har, that story is a laugh a minute.

So I *really* don’t want to get fleas. There is just something about those little bastards breeding in my hair that makes me a little uncomfortable. Stomach parasites, ants, scorpions, snakes, I can deal with. No fleas.

With this perpetually in back of my mind, I got all gussied up like a Moron missionary for my foray into the countryside. We went to a cotton growing area on the border with Uzbekistan. It took a miraculously short two hours in the morning to navigate the protocol, my favorite being the stop at the local mayor’s office. He had a dilapidated desk adorned only with a tiny Tajik flag and a MASSIVE red plastic rotary phone.

The trip out went past women in brightly colored robes working in the cotton fields set against the dramatic backdrop of the mountains. The mosques have checkerboard roofs and elaborately carved doors. What was really striking though is the fact that there were no men. Anywhere. This time of year, men are either working in the city or in Russia. Only young boys, old men, and the poorest that cannot afford to go anywhere to work are left in the town. The women and children were pleasant enough though. I took some of their pictures so you can see what they look like. I also took a picture of my piloting team and our government minder, so you can see who I was working with. My mom digs that kind of slice-of-life thing.

Anyway, I got back from piloting yesterday, preoccupied with my potential flea problem. I came back to my hotel room, went immediately into the white tile bathroom, stripped down, filled the sink up with as hot water as I could, threw my clothes into it, and got into a shower hot enough to sterilize myself. Went I got out, I carefully examined myself for anything that could be a flea bite, and the sink for anything that might be a drown flea. You can bet that I am going to do the same thing today when I get home. Every itch is a sign of my coming infestation.

That is all for now. Tonight I am going to fly to a town in the mountains and take a little tour around there for the weekend, so hopefully I will have something interesting for next week. Enjoy your flea-free life in the first world, I am going to go back to itching.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Samani-a-good, Stalinabad

So this place is different. Normally I don’t start off with details about the country, thinking that if you cared you could google it, but this time I will make an exception as I am guessing most of the audience couldn’t find it on a map.

Tajikistan is the smallest and poorest of the Central Asia republics. It is bordered by Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, Afghanistan to the south and China to the east, though the border with China is disputed because, as we all know, China could dispute a border with an ocean. The capital is Dushanbe, which means Monday in Tajik. The town’s claim to fame was its Monday market before the Soviets arrived, built a railroad and named it the capital of the Soviet Republic they created. Before revisionists got into it in the early 1960s, however, it was called “Stalinabad,” which makes me think that it figured prominently in contemporary American spy movie spoofs. “Come now, comrade, we must change Stalinabad’s name. Capitalists – they laugh at us.” It is actually a fairly pleasant capital, however, as it was a planned city mostly built from scratch in the 1920’s. Lots of wide boulevards and tree lined streets. The shade is nice since it is well into the high 90s every day here.

In addition to the capital, there are four states in Tajikistan: Khatlon, Sogd, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, and, I shit you not, Rayons of Republican Subordination. It sounds like a game that Bush and Cheney play with tazers. I still haven’t figured out if it is just an awkward translation from Russian or what. I will let you know soon. I am going on mission to the Rayons of Republican Subordination next week. (Come on, how many of you have a work schedule that could double as Doctor Spok’s to-do list?)

Despite being only 100 kilometers from the Afghan border, Tajikistan is fairly liberal. I would say that less than half of the women cover their hair here, and the traditional robes are more just shapeless and gaudy than oppressive. Plus I have seen some impressive outfits on the younger tarted-up Russian girls here. I, as a former Long Island Catholic school girl myself, would be embarrassed to wear them to the beach.

Another weird bit of Tajik trends is the uni-brow. It is apparently really hip here. Some women obviously tweeze their brows into the uni-brow shape. I have even seen one or two that have filled in the thin part between their eyes with eyebrow pencil. It is can be distracting if you are talking to them too, especially in official capacities. You find yourself talking to their eyebrow.

With work, I haven’t gotten a chance to do much in the way of tourism. I did go down to see the only major landmark in the capital, the statue of Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid dynasty. It was erected in 1999, which was the coincidence of the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty and the 8th anniversary of Tajik independence. It also coincidenced with the end of the civil war and the need to replace the largest statue of Lenin this side of the Urals.

That is about all for now. I have to get back to shuttling between my 4 star hotel, which looks like the Winter Palace, and the office, which is nothing special. I will try to do some interesting sightseeing this weekend.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Just Another Day at the Afisi

The town slogan for Bukoba – painted on all the signs into and out of town – is “Let’s be safe, speed and AIDs kill.”

I wish that I had some exciting stories about the last three weeks in East Africa, but I really don’t. Just another day at the office. Albeit at the office where geckos nest under computers, two-inch wasps size up the printer for hive feasibility and the occasional bat drowns in the bathroom. Electricity was sometimes intermittent in the mornings, so some days we just worked until the laptop battery died, then went outside to play ping-pong.

I was in the office six days a week, so that cuts down on adventure time. On Sundays, my roommate Angel and I went hiking down to Lake Victoria or just hung around and watched the previous tenants collection of pirated Chinese DVDs. Highlights of my time there included playing Taboo where all the Tanzanians cheat and use Swahili, but no one cares as long as the Kilimanjaro beer is flowing; celebrating the fourth of July as a work day when we came home, drank Kili and watched a pirated copy of the feel-good American classic – Easy Rider; and running low on booze for the last night and deciding to drink Konyagi (the local moonshine that is hyper-distilled banana wine) and grape Fanta, which combined for the smooth flavor of Robatussin.

I only got out into the real field one day to do pilot testing of the survey I am helping to develop. We went to a village about 40 minutes outside of town. It was different that the small villages that I was used to in West Africa. Here there is water everywhere, so the houses don’t need to be centralized around a well. There are sprinkled among the hills and banana trees, with clay dirt paths connecting them. The houses are made out of mud and reeds, with thatched roofs. Because most people are too poor for furniture, the dirt floor is covered with dried grass to sit on. You have to take your shoes off to walk on the grass.

It was, however, an interesting slice of life into rural northwestern Tanzania. All the surveys we conducted were in Swahili, so I could only guess what was going on most of the time. My favorite survey was in a huge compound of a relatively affluent farmer. The white lady and her survey team was apparently the big happening for that day, and friends and children drifted by to listen in. We asked the household head how many children he had. When he replied six, a spirited discussion broke out between the father and the eight year old sitting on the floor. After fierce debate, the man changed his answer, actually, there were seven. Oops, better not tell Mom.

Another household was the Tanzania version of that idiot neighbor we’ve all had at some point in our lives. He has bicycle parts strewn around his yard (the East African equivalent of a Pinto up on cinderblocks). There was a chicken in his living room. He had no furniture at all, but a shiny Chinese boom box that was belting out the Snoop and Tupac to a mud-rattling-roar. His wall was decorated with 20-30 photos of him in his younger days, with someone that I have to assume was his idiot cousin – because guys like this always seem to have an idiot cousin to fill this role – dressed in their gangster finest, posing hip-hop style and flashing what might have been poorly impersonated gang signs – or early onset arthritis brought on by vitamin deficiency – one can’t really be sure. Another testament to the universality of mankind.

So I am writing this from my hotel room in Kampala. Tomorrow, I fly out to London and then, barring any flaming doctor attacks, on to Washington. I will be there for five whole days before heading to a wedding in New York (congratulations Kristin and Bobby) and then uncharted waters – Tajikistan.