Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wardrobe Experiences

I read C. S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" books many times during my childhood and teen years. I watched the original BBC movies over and over and listened as my Dad read the books to me and my brothers. The other day it occurred to me that I feel like I'm having a "wardrobe" experience. If you're not familiar with the stories, the basic premise is that four siblings and other children go to the magical world of Narnia and have all kinds of adventures. They get to Narnia in different ways, but in the first book they travel to Narnia through a mysterious wardrobe in an old manor house. This particular wardrobe has no back panel; it leads into a forest in Narnia. In Narnia, the children witness the end of a perpetual winter; the sacrifice of the lion, Aslan; become kings and queens of the land; and grow to adulthood. Narnia years later, they stumble upon the wardrobe again, long after they have forgotten where they came from. When they go back through the wardrobe door, only 10 minutes have passed since they left Our World, and they are children again.

I've now been in Tajikistan for 4 months, but so much has happened in that time. I feel like I will have a similar experience as the Narnia children had when I return to the US this summer. I think it's helpful to look back at the end of the year, and I want to share some of my reflections about things I couldn't have imagined 4 months ago.

I've become more direct and to-the-point, at least in some situations. In the past couple of weeks, I've been dealing with students faced with failing my class. One guy, a 3rd year student, indicated that he would be in big trouble with his father. "You should have thought of that 5 semesters ago," I said. To another student, I pointed out: "My Tajik is better than your English," and "it's not my problem." Now, I'm not saying that these are great models of teacher-student interaction, but they are examples of how I've become firmer as a teacher.

Considering the amount of time I've been here, I've learned quite a bit of Tajik. I can have a very basic conversation with sellers at the market and now can understand if people are asking where I'm from or if I'm married! This evening at our English Faculty New Year's party, I was asked to give a toast/speech and to try to say it first in Tajik. [I think] I was able to express that I'm happy to be working with the teachers there and wish them health and happiness in the New Year. After that, my "Tajik was finished," to use the phrase of my co-worker, who sometimes says "My English is finished." I finished my New Year's wishes in English. Back to the Tajik, I can sit in staff meetings where the Dean talks on and on in Tajik and sometimes understand the basic idea.

There are also certain aspects of culture that you come to expect, to your own surprise. A while back I was talking to a married woman about her desire to improve her English by traveling. I asked her in surprise: "Would your husband allow you to go?" I now take it as a given that if a female student gets married, her husband may or may not allow her to continue to study. Now, even in the US, of course, family and spouses are always a consideration when making study decisions, but the fact that I asked about a person's husband allowing something surprised even me.

I've also flagged down busses on the main road (yes, you can do that here!), used the same spoon and cup as someone else, and starting stirring the tea by pouring a cup and dumping it back twice before pouring one to drink. Instant coffee doesn't even taste so bad anymore!

Those are some of the more light-hearted examples of how I'm changing and adapting, but there are deeper things too. I've come to appreciate so many things more, from the government and educational systems in the US to the amount of personal choice many people in the States have. Where at the beginning, I more frequently judged the way people do things, while I don't always agree, I'm at least understanding where people come from more. I understand some of the seemingly arbitrary laws and why teachers are very strict with their students.

I'd love to hear your reflections on this past year--send me an email or comment if you have something you'd like to share. This picture is a pretty typical street scene, and a picture of me hiking in the mountains Christmas Day. The views of the mountains with the snow have been incredible lately.

Soli Nav Mubarak! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa's Helpers

This week "Santa's helpers" the ELFs (English Language Fellows) of Tajikistan have been busy. A Fellow ELF organized a training for English teachers who work in a special program called English Access Microscholarship. Access provides just that, access to English language instruction for disadvantaged youth around the world who would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in quality English-language classes. The program serves youth ages 14-16 in 55 countries and is not only English language classes but students also learn about American culture and democracy. Anyway, we did a two-day training, and many of the Access teachers from 9 partner programs in the country were able to attend! In the photo, me and my Fellow ELF, Sharon, are doing a session on holiday songs for the teachers. We donned my Santa and Elf hats and gave a couple of the teachers jingle bells to ring as we sang.

The training was really well received by the teachers and included ideas for teaching US geography, American holidays, group learning, and more. One of the participants wrote in their comments: "You really are Santa's friends--and [friends of] the Tajik people too." They were a great group of teachers to work with, but we were very tired by the end of the 2 days!

On Christmas Eve, I went to someone's house for a Thai-themed party. The food was delicious, and the host had this great nativity scene that was made in Tajikistan! That's me and Sharon in front of her Christmas tree in our Santa and Elf hats. Tonight (Christmas Day) I went to another couple's house for a lovely dinner, complete with Butterball turkey from the US!

Merry Christmas!

The opinions on this blog are not the opinions of the ELF program or the US Dept of State.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hissor Fortress

A couple weeks ago I was invited to Hissor, a town about 20 minutes from Dushanbe, to see the famous Hissor Fortress (in Tajik, Kalai Hissor). A teacher I know lives in Hissor, and she took me to the fortress, museum, her school, and the homes of several of her family members.

According to my trusty copy of "Tajikistan and the High Pamirs," (p 121 for those who have it), the site has been inhabited for thousands of years (since the Stone Age). The actual walls of the fortress were destroyed 21 times by armies from Alexander the Great to the Red Army, and the current gate is a reconstruction. Across the road from the Fortress are two former medressas, or Islamic religious schools, one of which is a museum. The medressa was a large square courtyard with small rooms around it where the students would stay for a couple years during their studies. By the end, if they were successful, they were able to recite the entire Koran. The wooden piece of machinery in the picture is an old water powered wheat grinder--cool, huh? The other wooden log thing is an oil press--for flaxseed oil as I recall from the tour guide's explanation.

One room in the museum had some posters to commemorate May 9, "Victory Day" for World War II. The pictures were of veterans (I assume from the Hissor region) who were honored during the 60th anniversary celebrations in 2005. Imagine being an 18 year old from the poorest region of the USSR who had never left your valley before, traveling thousands of miles to fight, maybe to return, maybe not. Similar stories of that war are told in different languages and with different names from nations all around the world. "My grandfather, great-grandfather, father, uncle..."

After visiting the fortress and museum, Shahlo (another Shahlo, not my counterpart at the university) took me for a lovely lunch outside where we sat and ate on a "cot" overlooking a river. That was the beginning of an afternoon of eating, since we then went to another place for dessert and then to two relatives houses for tea and snacks! I'm wearing the Tajik dress that my students gave me for teacher day. The dress is called a "corta" and the pants underneath are called "azor".

Thanks for reading--as usual the Department of State and the English Language Fellowship program have nothing to do with the ideas and ramblings presented here :)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

How to Carve a Pumpkin in Tajikistan

Step 1: Go to the bazaar and find a pumpkin "kadu" in Tajik. (In my case, this was the only pumpkin I've ever seen in the market that was shaped like a American pumpkin. Most are like giant butternut squash).
Step 2: Amuse the seller by your over the top enthusiasm at finding said pumpkin, and laugh while your friend takes your picture with the seller and the pumpkin. (That picture is still in her camera, I think).
Step 3: Take the 9 kg (20 lb) pumpkin home in your backpack.
Step 4: Cut the top off the pumpkin and try to remove the cap. Since the flesh is so think, cut a nose hole so you can try pushing from that angle.
Step 5: Pry the cap off the pumpkin using a knife and spoon.
Step 6: Take a victory bite. Just kidding!
Step 7: Clean the inside (note how thick it is).
Step 8: Go upstairs to your neighbors' apartment, since you had invited yourself over to demonstrate pumpkin carving. (Three people in the Tajik family in my building speak English, so that's how I communicate with them. I also practice my Tajik phrases on them).
Step 9: Ask the neighbor girls' advice on eye and mouth placement, and practice Tajik words for eyes, nose, and mouth.
Step 10: Carve the pumpkin as the whole family watches in amazement and excitement.
Step 11: Give the finished pumpkin a name. The grandmother thought this one should have an English name, so the girls named him "Tommy."
Step 12: Light a candle inside the pumpkin and applaud with the girls at the face glows.
Step 13: Eat soup, bread, cookies, meat and salad and drink homemade juice while talking with the family.
Step 14: Go back home with the pumpkin (he's going to a Halloween party hosted by an American couple) and reflect on how great your neighbors are.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Norak--The Hydropower City

A week and a half ago I had the privilege of visiting Norak, the home town of Shahlo, my "counterpart" at the university. She was assigned to help me navigate life at the university, and she teaches the "A" half of our group of students and I teach "B." I can't describe how thankful I am for this woman. She spent hours trekking from office to office helping me fill out paperwork in Tajik so I could be an official employee of the university, came to my apartment to check on me when I was sick last week, and took me as her guest to her hometown. She exemplifies Tajik hospitality. Seriously, the level of hospitality in this country is amazing.

Anyway, about Norak. It's a city of about 45,000 people (but feels much smaller) about an hour drive from Dushanbe. It is home to one of the largest hydro power stations in the world, according to Shahlo, and it powers much of Tajikistan. The plant was built during the Soviet era. Note the old mural on one of the apartment buildings in the town. If you click to enlarge it, you can see that it features a "Rosie the Riveter" style illustration of a woman with a power plug. During the Soviet era, the town itself was occupied mainly by Russians, while the surrounding villages were home to the Tajiks. Shahlo's family was one of only 2 Tajik families in their apartment block in town, so she speaks Russian almost like a first language.

Norak's square still features a large statute of Lenin. The Lenin statute in Dushanbe wasn't around long after independence. If it's too dark to see the Lenin statute, one only needs look to one of the mountain peaks to see a lighted silhouette of Lenin's head at the top of a mountain.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My Apartment

Here's a video tour of my apartment! I said in the narration that the cat's name is Vasha--I can't remember his exact name, but it's something like that. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

'Tis the Night Before Eid

Tomorrow (September 21st) is the holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, or the end of the month of fasting for Muslims around the world. "Eid" means "festivity" in Arabic and "Fitr" means "to break the fast," (Wikipedia). Here in Tajikistan, people generally refer to the upcoming holiday as "Eid-i-Ramazan." Tomorrow, schools and offices are closed. I don't know about the markets, since this holiday involves a lot of eating. Those who have family in other cities or villages have traveled to visit them if they were able.

I know many people who observed the fast, and also many who didn't, either for specific health reasons or because it is too difficult. For those who fast, it means no food, drink or other indulgences (smoking is one) doing daylight hours. At the end of the day, families break the fast together with the Iftor meal (pronounced Iftar in some countries). I was invited to an Iftor meal combined with a birthday party for a coworker this week. The other guests and I were ushered into a room with a long table laden with food: salads, bread, tea, fruit, vegetables, sambusas, jam...and that was just the appetizer. Then we were served soup with dumplings and vegetables, foil packets with roasted meat and vegetables, and cake. My friend's mother and other women in the household had surely been cooking all day long. It was delicious. As we were leaving, her mother asked us to come again, and my friend walked us down to where we would take minibuses to our homes. Part of Tajik hospitality is making sure that the guests get all the way home safely. The next day, 4 different coworkers who were at the party asked me how my journey home was, and I live a 5 minute bus ride away!

Eid is celebrated for 3 days, though the only school holiday this year is the first day. People go from house to house, visiting friends and family and sampling their spreads of food. Tomorrow I will go to another Tajik friend's house to celebrate Eid-i-Ramazan. She invited me, telling me to come at 9:30 or 10:00 AM, because her mother would have the soup ready by then and she wants me to be their first guest! I think I will also visit my neighbor's apartment too. I borrowed a traditional Tajik outfit from an American friend and I will wear it for the festivities. I love the Tajik clothing. Pictures of that to come!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pedagogical Institute

This is my first week teaching at Tajik State Pedagogical University (aka Ped Institute or Teacher Training University). The first picture is not from the Ped Institute; it's a weekly discussion club at the Embassy-sponsored American Corner. I don't have pictures of my classes yet, but will post when I do. I'm working with 2 groups of 3rd year students, teaching grammar and "practice," which is a combination of reading, grammar, and other skills. There are 13,000 students in the university as a whole, and more than 1,000 in the English department, according to the department Dean. It doesn't seem like that many to me, but the classes are on 2 different floors, and 5th year students are gone on practicum.

The students are very friendly and generally eager to learn. When a teacher or administrator enters a classroom, the students stand until they are given permission to sit down. My classes are figuring out that this is not an American custom, so only some of them stand when I come into the room, which is fine with me. Women usually wear traditional Tajik clothing, and men almost always wear white shirts and ties. The students couldn't believe it when I told them that some American college students go to classes in their pajamas, basically--sweatshirts and sweatpants, and that male students almost never wear ties to class.

Though this is a teacher training university, most of the students I've talked to don't actually want to be teachers. They dream of careers as interpreters, translators, or local staff working for a foreign NGOs in Tajikistan. They see English as their ticket to the world--travel, studying abroad, etc. Students ask me how they can improve their English and beg me to visit their classes or help them individually. I tell them I can't be their individual tutor, but I will be helping to organize some discussion clubs they can participate in. If any of you want to come visit me, students would be THRILLED to meet more Americans. There are apparently direct flights to Dushanbe from Frankfurt and Riga, Latvia now...(hint, hint...)

I'm going camping with some new friends this weekend, so look forward to pictures of the mountains!! I can't wait.

The opinions in this blog are not the opinions of the US State Department or the English Language Fellowship Program.

Monday, August 31, 2009

My New Home

This is me outside my apartment building. It took about 15 min to upload this photo, so it's the only one for now.

Friday, August 28, 2009

First Impressions

I'm finally in Dushanbe! I'm not able to post pictures at the moment, but I plan to post some in the next day. I arrived Thursday morning at 3:30, went to an apartment, and slept for a few hours before going to a brief orientation at the Embassy.

First things first, the food: Last evening my fellow EL Fellow and I went to dinner with some other visitors to Tajikistan. We ate at a traditional Tajik restaurant, and the food was delicious. We ate lamb and beef kebabs (called shashlyk here) served on gigantic skewers. I was really tempted to challenge someone to a duel, but resisted. We also had a soup called lahman, which had beef, noodles and vegetables, topped with cilantro. We also sampled a dumpling filled with meat and had non, the traditional round loaf bread. Notice a trend here? Meat and carbs. There are lots of vegetables and fruits too, but veggies tend to be a little safer if prepared at home. Fortunately, another expat expressed an interest in running together, which will help with all the bread consumption. :)

Local dress: the majority of the women I see walking around wear the traditional Tajik clothing: a long dress with matching pants underneath. See the Flickr link for pictures. It's beautiful. Many of those women wear a scarf. Here in the capital lots of women wear Western clothing (pants, varied length skirts). Men wear Western-style clothing, for the most part--dress pants and polo or button up shirts. Some wear a more traditional round hat or long tunic with flowing pants.

People interactions: I haven't interacted much with locals other than those who work at the Embassy yet, but the people seem very friendly, and Tajiks are known for their great hospitality. They are very patient with my lack of Russian or Tajik when I've exchanged money or bought things at the store. Yesterday I need to use the phone and since I don't have one yet, I decided to go upstairs and knock on a neighbor's apartment door. Just as I was locking my apartment, a young father entered the building with his two daughters. I greeted him in Russian and there my Russian ended. He spoke English, though, so I explained that I need to use the phone, and he dialed the number on his cell. He introduced himself and his daughters and said they could help me if I need anything. I explained that I'm the "new Bruce" since the previous American in my position lived in the same apartment. I may switch apartments to one across the street, but either way I hope to stay in touch with this family. I was so thankful they came along just then!

The setting: I haven't seen the mountains yet because it's been dusty since I arrived. I guess this is unusual; normally the sun is incredibly bright, I've been told. I can't wait to see the mountains! Another American told me they went camping outside the city in a gorgeous area with a river that was bluer than any they had ever seen. I'm hoping I'll get to go camping! The main street in Dushanbe is tree-lined, and there is occasional grass but everything looks pretty dry and lawns don't exist here (I think it's a pretty American thing).

Well, that's all for now. More later.

The opinions and ideas expressed in this blog are not the opinions of the US Department of State or the English Language Fellowship program.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Istanbul and the Black Sea

Since I arrived in Istanbul on Saturday I've been walking around, seeing sites like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (former church, then mosque, now museum), sampling Turkish cuisine, and trying to avoid the people who want me to buy their entire shop when I haven't so much as looked at one carpet. Usually I just walk by without even acknowledging them, and a couple times I tried to pretend I only speak Spanish. Unfortunately for me, some of the shopkeepers speak Spanish too! I haven't bought anything but food yet--my suitcases are too full for anything else! The first picture is the beach near Agva (see below) and the second is me at the top of Galata Tower with Istanbul in the background.

Today I took a day trip with a tour company to the Black Sea, and it was absolutely lovely. We were a small group of 5: 2 Austrialian women and a couple from Spain besides myself. We went to a Sile (pronounced Shilay) and Agva (silent g), small tourist towns about an hour and a half outside Istanbul. We took a boat trip on a small river in Agva and then ate lunch at a riverside restaurant. Our guide, Umut, was excellent, and since we were such a small group we could decide among ourselves if we wanted to stay in one place longer or move on. I enjoyed getting to know the others in the group, and the Spanish couple was amused by my Mexican-accented Spanish. The Austrialian women and I were amused by watching our guide fall asleep repeatedly on the boat trip. (He didn't need to provide commentary for the boat ride).

I noticed a number of unfinished houses along the river and the road. They were concrete structures with several floors but no windows, doors, or other finishing touches, and it looked like noone had been working on them for a while. I asked the guide if the unfinished houses were related to the economic crisis and he said yes. He said that the prices of homes have dropped 40-50%, and that in the past rent prices went up every year to adjust for inflation, but this year he told his landlord he couldn't pay the increased price and the landlord agreed. In the past, a landlord would have found a new tenant in a week, but now they are holding on to tenants if they can. It's interesting and sad to hear about how other countries have been affected by the greed of the mortage fiasco.

In the afternoon, the 5 of us climbed down a steep hill to a small beach in a little cove. We swam, climbed on the rocks, and sat in the sun. I sat and marved at the awesome beauty of God's creation. It was gorgeous and totally relaxing. I want to upload more pictures, but the internet connection is really slow. Tomorrow I'm off on another day trip to see the ruins of Troy. As a literature person, I couldn't pass that one up.

Thanks for reading! I've never been known for my brevity. And the State Department wants English Language Fellow bloggers to note that all ideas and opinions expressed in my blog are my own, and are not the opinions of the State Department. :)

~Love from Istanbul~

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Journey Begins

Here I am in Washington DC, staying blocks from the Capitol for the English Language Fellow Pre-Departure Orientation. I arrived yesterday after packing all my belongings for storage (minus 3 very heavy bags and 2 carry ons), several goodbye parties, and many tears and prayers of blessing. I feel extremely blessed to have friends, family and co-workers like you all. I feel so loved and encouraged--THANK YOU!!

This evening I walked to the Capitol with Sharon, another Fellow headed to Tajikistan. When I arrived yesterday, I found out there are 3 of us going there instead of just 2! Suzanne was just hired last week and she will also be working in Dushanbe, but with a slightly different program. I'm excited to already know another person who will be in the same city! She will be going to Tajikistan in September, giving her only a month to get everything ready. I'm the only one here I've met so far who is leaving directly from orientation (since I opted to spend a few days vacationing in Turkey). Leaving right from orientation is mixed: on the one hand, I'm done with all the preparations others are still in the middle of; on the other, there may be information that could have been helpful in packing, like the teaching materials that should be already available at the Embassy.

The days are full of sessions with lots of information and more acronyms that I can keep track of. It's been helpful to talk with people who are going to the same regions and share information. At times I feel like my brain is going to explode! It's been very interesting to meet this group of people who are going to almost any country you can think of outside Western Europe: the Central Asian "stans," East Timor, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Brazil, South Africa... an amazing group of people--different ages and levels of experience in teaching English. If you want to hang out in a place where people love geography, languages, cultures and teaching, this is it! OK, I'd better get some sleep before another big day tomorrow. If I'm ambitious in the morning, I may get up and go running on the National Mall.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Vakhsh River, Tajikistan

"I've never heard of that before."
"Can you say that again?"
"Why are you going there?"
"I'm not sure where that is."

To be honest, I didn't know exactly where Tajikistan was until about two months ago when I accepted a position as an English Language Fellow (ELF) through a US State Department sponsored program. It's not a country you hear about on the news, for the most part, and with a population of 7 million (only about 1 million more than the population of Minnesota) most people have never met someone from Tajikistan. As the Tajikistan and the High Pamirs guidebook states: "many people know more about the surface of the moon than Tajikistan..." (p. 15). I have a unique opportunity to live, work, and learn in this country, and you can follow along. I will arrive in Tajikistan at the end of August, and be there for 10 months, through June 2010.

Why am I going there? The State Dept. sends about 150 English teachers annually to various parts of the world on a variety of assignments, including teaching in universities, providing teacher training, and developing curriculum. I will be teaching at Tajik Pedagogical University in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and my students will be future English teachers. I'll also be working a least quarterly with teachers in about six English programs for youth in Dushanbe and surrounding towns. I became interested in Russia and the former USSR when I spent six weeks in Russia during college, and the job description for the ELF positions in Tajikistan were particularly intruiging to me.

Tajikistan is about the size of Wisconsin, and borders Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and NW China. Most of the country is mountainous (93%, in fact!) and it's home to the Pamirs, the 3rd highest mountain range in the world. Most of Tajikistan's electricity is created by hydro power, which leads to frequent power outages in the winter when the rivers freeze.

Tajiki (or Tajik) is the official language of the country, and about 80% of the population is ethnically Tajik. Uzbeks make up about 15%, Russians 1%, Kyrgz 1%, and 3% other ethnicities. Russian is widely used in education and business. Tajiki is a Persian language, very closely related to Farsi (Iran) and Dari (Afghanistan). The major languages of the other Central Asian former USSR countries (Uzbek, Kyrgz, Kazak, and Turkmen) are all Turkic languages, so they have more in common with each other than with Tajiki.

More to come on these topics as I learn about them. For now, thanks for joining me in this adventure! Please email and post comments. I want to hear what's going on in your lives as well.