Wednesday, May 23, 2012

22 things I learned at age 22

As the end of my time here creeps closer, and my 23rd birthday closer still, I think now is a good time to take an inventory of what I’ve learned this year in Tajikistan.  Given that these days pretty much every 20-something seems to embark on a post-college international quest for life understanding, a few people might be able to relate to this list of things I’ve learned during my time abroad, and my 22nd year on Earth...

22 things I learned at age 22

1.  There are only a few parts of your body that it is absolutely nonnegotiable to wash regularly:  And that’s what they invented wet wipes for.

2. Living alone is awesome:  By the numbers: Number of times eating trail mix for dinner per week: 5, percent of time spent not wearing pants: 70, number of times loudly singing along to Tim McGraw per day: 8, number of times scolded for being a rancid heathen slob: 0. Booya.

3. I don’t know anything:  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about agriculture in Tajikistan this year it’s that I don’t know anything about it.  Or I know about 3% of what there is to know about it.  Meanwhile, there are hordes of old white men here who have worked with USAID for the past 137 years, 112 of those spent specializing in agriculture in Tajikistan. Then there are the old Soviet-esque engineers in my office who, every time I approach them, tell me with disdain that I shouldn’t be studying water issues when I’m not an engineer.  If I were more irreverent to authority I’d ask them why, if being an engineer is the only thing that matters, two thirds of the drinking water projects that they’ve installed in the past two years are out of operation for reasons that have nothing to do with engineering. 

4. But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to contribute: Snarky comments aside, three things that I’ve learned that a young person with no skills can contribute to the world are:
a. An open mind: Old white men often lack this
b. Critical thinking skills: Education systems in developing countries often don’t teach this
c. Absurd amounts of time: My time is really valuable, so valuable in fact that yesterday I spent three hours watching Latin pop music videos.  Similarly, most real people don’t have the luxury of being able to pick up and live in a village.

5. Take visas seriously: I used to believe I was charming enough to talk myself out of any travel conundrum.  Then I got deported from India.

6.  Flooding your troubles with vodka will only lead to emotional hangovers:  If I had to sum up this past winter in ten words they would be: always freaking cold, depressed as hell, way too much vodka.  Then I travelled to Russia and realized, to my amazement, that there is an entire country based on these three things.  Besides winter in Tajikistan being generally miserable and depressing, I was unsure how to start my research project and thus spending many of my days in a haze of aimlessness.  Furthermore, I was grappling with my first real break-up like a boiling pot of crazy (small consolation was, however, found in the fact that any new girlfriend likely can’t compete with me when it comes to using squat toilets without getting pee everywhere or haggling with cab drivers in the absence of a common language).   Anyways, reverting to alcohol seemed to be the only logical option.  Until I realized it was making me more miserable than Rick Santorum at a gay pride parade.

7.  So if you’re unhappy change your metric, your mindset, or your situation:  Just don’t get paralyzed by indecision and fear.  Lonely Depressing Vodka Soaked Winter 2011-2012 finally came to an end when I finally braved up and headed to the countryside to pursue a lifestyle free from the shackles of modern civilization (those shackles being personal hygiene and food that isn’t white bread).

8. But it’s also okay to not be happy all the time: To quote a book I’m reading on reaching enlightenment (one of the best things about having inappropriate amounts of free time is the opportunity to undertake light reading on the meaning of life) ---“It’s easier to wake up from a nightmare than an unpleasant dream.”  Once you’ve experienced the low times, the high times are much higher.  And after I’d emerged from a time when everything seemed ugly, the world started to look better than it ever had.

9.  Aladdin and Jasmine knew each other for less than 48 hours when they decided to get married:  When I saw this at age six I thought it was a perfect love story, when I saw this at age 22 I thought it was shallow and unrealistic.  It’s like he only fell in love with her because she was beautiful and half-naked and rich.  Thank god that never happens in real life.

10.  It’s difficult to understand yourself and near impossible to understand other people: "Below the surface stream, shallow and light, of what we say we feel---below the stream, as light, of what we think we feel---there flows with noiseless current strong, obscure and deep, the central stream of what we feel indeed."  So basically, thanks to our friendly neighborhood subconscious, none of us make any sense.  Simultaneously liberating and annoying as hell.

11.  I’m an introvert: And actually a pretty socially awkward one at that.  I had a hunch on this one ever since graduation last year when I felt uncomfortable standing on stage so I decided to make small talk with the guy next to me by asking him where he worked.  Turns out he was the dean of my college.  Also turns out some of us are best suited to limit our human interaction.
12. …And that’s nothing to be ashamed of: No longer will I try to hide my introvert-ism with a thin veneer of alcohol, loud friends, and other social crutches.  Although American culture might favor extroverts, less time talking means more time thinking, learning, pursuing an obscure interest in Sogdian ceramics, or writing poetry in Swahili.  And in my book that makes someone more interesting than the ability to network at a cocktail party.

13. You probably don’t care but I’m also lactose intolerant:  And my only two thoughts on the matter are---a. It’s probably good that there are foods that I legitimately experience physical pain from consuming, as there’s probably nothing else that can stop me from eating.  b. I will still be eating ice cream every day.  Speaking of foods that are intolerable,

14.  Plov is an acquired taste: It looks gross.  It makes you feel gross.  It actually seriously is pretty gross.  But after a while you start to like it.

15.  Fresh white bread, unfortunately, is not:  And for Christs sake be careful because it will creep up on you after a while.  But even that doesn’t matter so much because,

16.  There are more serious issues in the world than the size of your thighs, you self-centered piece of shit: This is one that I’ve been trying to get through my head for a while.  Somewhere between talking to a man whose son was trafficked in Moscow and going to a rural clinic that was treating a woman with hemorrhagic fever (read: blood coming out of every hole in your body), I’ve started to get pretty ashamed of ninety percent of what goes through my head. 

17.  It takes more energy to be stressed about being unproductive than it takes to be productive:  Probably should have picked up on this one in college but definitely didn’t.  I’ve wasted many good hours this year being anxious about time mismanagement. 

18.  At the same time sometimes it’s just as valuable to be a be-er as it is to be a do-er:  This year has forced me to rethink productivity metrics.  Leave for a run at 9am, return three hours later having made friends with a 14 year-old-boy and ridden a donkey part way home?  Surely as productive as spending the morning trying to solve every water problem in the Aral Sea basin.

19. Be a pochemuchka:   Pochemuchka  is the Russian word for someone who asks a lot of questions---‘pochemu’ is the word for ‘why’ so it means ‘little why-er’.  Curiosity makes everything better.

20.  Make time every day for reading, resting, running, reflecting, and religion (or spirituality or science or whatever makes you feel that there’s something bigger than yourself ):  Reading because it provides interesting things to think and talk about, rest because empty moments lend to creativity and working all the time sucks, running because it prevents you from being cranky and constipated, reflection because otherwise you’ll be stupid and boring to talk to, and religion (or whatever) because it serves as a reminder to be constantly grateful and in awe of the world around you.

21. There is a positive correlation between happiness and life simplicity: Consider me the rural lifestyle’s biggest cheerleader.  It probably isn’t true for everyone, it goes against the way I’ve lived to this point, and I can’t really explain it but I’m pretty sure humans are hard-wired for the simple life.  We’ve been evolving for millions of years in an environment different from the fast-paced, technology-obsessed, hyper-connected one that we live in today.  Deleting some of that clutter worked wonders for my mental health.

22.  Don’t take people’s advice on most things.  Actually on pretty much anything:  I think it’s appropriate to end this list of things I wish I’d known sooner by telling you not to listen to them.  People gave me all kinds of well-meaning advice on how to do this year properly---“Don’t live with a Tajik family, you’ll be miserable.” “It’s culturally unacceptable to go running by yourself.” “It’s culturally acceptable to go running by yourself but only if you wear a burqa.” “Your survey for farmers should be no more than four pages/all multiple choice questions/translated into ancient Greek/only implemented while you’re doing a headstand and playing the ukulele.”  People give well-meaning advice but their experiences and opinions are often pretty irrelevant.  Nothing can substitute for figuring things out for yourself in the full current of human life. 

Public Enemy #1

Public Enemy #2

Public Enemy #3

 Public Enemy #4

Me in a coma induced from consuming a lot of all four in one sitting

No soap, no water, no problem
 Aladdin and Jasmine: Hot, barely clothed….and probably lacking chemistry

Friday, April 27, 2012

To Sugd

On Wednesday I moved to Khujand, the second biggest city in Tajikistan.  Also known as the home of the largest Lenin statue in Central Asia (appropriately so, the city was named Leninabad under the Soviet Union), the most delicious white bread in the universe, the Syr Darya river, a significant number of Porsche Cayenne-driving drug dealers, and the most northern Persian speaking population in the world.

Leaving Shaartuz was bittersweet----the prospect of taking regular showers, expanding my diet beyond kasha and potato soup, and having people that I can effectively communicate with around was sweet, saying good-bye to my super kind Tajik fam and leaving behind the tranquility and solitude of village life was bitter.  My host sister made me a CD of American music, which will serve as a reminder that a 14 year-old girl who has never left rural Tajikistan knows more about American pop culture and has better taste in music than I do.  My host father and I had one last vodka drinking hurrah, which involved taking shots to him never having beat his wife in 27 years of marriage, red-heads, his youngest son starting to write with his right hand instead of his left (like in the states a few decades ago, teacher’s here don’t allow writing with your left hand), hoping that his oldest daughter will become less shy, prosperity for the women of the world, my health, his family’s health, and my real family coming to visit and eat plov in July.  So it was quite a few shots.  Four years of irresponsible drinking at Penn State were obviously just training to for me to fit in better and be more culturally sensitive during my Fulbright experience.  It makes me think of that Steve Jobs quote--“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."  Enough of me getting all philosophical about my drinking habits though. 

The flight to Khujand was a bit unnerving.  Airlines in Tajikistan don't have the best reputation. Apparently if you give the flight attendants a bribe you're allowed into the cockpit during the flight.  The other option was to drive from Dushanbe, even more terrifying as the tunnel through the Fan Mountains has a history of flooding and killing everyone in it.  Anyways, I got here safely.  Work-wise I’ll be shifting focus a bit in Khujand, in Shaartuz I did an assessment of the sustainability of Water Users Association for irrigation management.  The conclusion of that assessment, to put 32 pages in a nutshell, was that the district water department is the root of all evil.  Here I’m going to do a bit of that but mostly focus on the sustainability of drinking water projects. 

Shaartuz bread--far inferior to Khujand bread

Lenin, Lenin, he's our man....
The heroin smuggler car of choice for whatever reason

Host mom and dad and shy host sister.

Host mom and dad, should-be leftie brother, and hip young teen sister.

The Dushanbe Half Marathon

Last weekend I ran the Dushanbe Half Marathon.  Generally speaking, the most challenging part of a race should be running it.  Not in Tajikistan.  Running 13.1 miles looked pretty damn easy compared to the amount of investigation required to figure out when the race was, where it started, how  to register, etc.  As a relatively lazy and impatient person, these obstacles were enough for me to decide that I wouldn’t be participating.  However, unfortunately, I have two very unlazy and patient friends who were bound and determined to run (these two patient and unlazy friends happen to be married to each other, getting their PhDs at UPenn and Princeton, and otherwise succeeding at life, which is what happens to unlazy and patient people).  By Friday, they had deduced that the race was at 8am, 9am, 10am, or 3pm on either Saturday or Sunday.  This was after having spoken directly with the race organizers.  We ended up running the race without registering or paying but were in good company as 2/3 of the other participants appeared to have also been unable to crack the Holy Grail of registration.  It was by far the most eclectic crowd of runners I have ever seen.  Fellow runners included a 6-year-old wearing flip flops, an old gray-bearded mullah in traditional dress, and a variety of men in their 20’s wearing skinny jeans and pointy toed loafers.  The majority of participants hopped in and out of the race as they pleased, running when the spirit moved (or when faced with the prospect of a woman passing them), taking a few miles off via shortcut if necessary.  There were a handful of other women running, mostly all intense competitive types who’d flown in from Russia for the prize money, but among the hundreds of participants I didn’t see any Tajik women running.  Another highlight of the race was the water stops, at one of which I drank hose water from a Sprite bottle, probably found on the side of the road.  I finished the race in 1 hour and 55 minutes-ish (obviously, there was no clock, why would you have one of those at a race?), with my pride relatively intact and possibly giardia.

Skinny jeans and pointy-toed loafters, the Tajik young man uniform, even on race day

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bonding time with the Tajik Fam

The past three weeks in southern Tajikistan have brought the last big snowfall of the winter, the sudden end of electricity rationing, the celebration of  the Persian New Year “Navruz,” blooming apricot and cherry trees, farmers evacuating their homes for the fields to begin planting and irrigating, a rainbow of wildflowers dotting the hills outside of town, and the perfect not-too-hot-not-too-cold weather that scientists will probably one day figure out how to geo-engineer the Earth’s climate to be everywhere all the time.  Even after seventeen years in Pennsylvania, I can say I’ve never felt nor appreciated the coming of spring more.

The end of March left me with lots of time with nothing to do but bond with my Tajik host fam.  My office was closed for a week for Navruz and power cuts were still happening so there was only one hour of electricity per day.  Furthermore, the warmer weather meant that I wasn’t inclined to spend every minute of free time hidden in a blanket fort in my bed room.  Of course it takes not having any power or any way to go to the office for me to foster face-to-face relationships rather than working in front of a computer all the time.  So American of me.  As I started to spend quality time with the family doing activities other than our nightly Russian soap opera watching, I learned that their thinking my name is Lawrence (which they still do) has not been the only communication failure between us.  They also thought I was 30.  On my end, I suddenly noticed that the daughter-in-law is at least 5 months pregnant.  I also finally mastered all of their names and learned that they speak Uzbek with each other and only speak Tajik with the father.  This was kind of a relief as I was getting concerned that every word that came out of their mouths sounded like complete gibberish.  Conversely, when they speak in Tajik, which I’ve been trying to learn for the past year, it also sounds like complete gibberish, just with intermittent numbers and references to the weather which I kind of understand.

Once we cleared up the basics----ages, names, first-languages, imminent babies, etc---we were able to move on to the fun stuff.  I’ve introduced them to some of the finer things in life: blue grass music, Planet Earth, do it yourself facials, and hot chocolate.  I also gave my host mom some crystal light packets, explaining how the beauty of bev packets is that they don’t have calories.  She was very tickled that I cared about this.  She pointed out that both her and her niece are so fat that they look like they are about to have babies and they are both plenty happy.  Now she likes to amuse the fam by grabbing her round belly and saying “baby baby!!”  Bonding with my host father has involved a shared affection for a less healthy beverage--vodka.  On Navruz we took about seven shots to the New Year bringing me a husband and my first son.  The next day a tiny part of me wanted the toasts to come true for the sole purpose of rationalizing my terrible hang over.  We had a picnic in the mountains a few weeks ago and I alternated between playing volleyball with the kids and taking vodka shots with the men.  So I think my place in society as an old unmarried woman who can’t cook is somewhere between a preteen and a man. 

In contrast, the 21 year-old pregnant daughter-in-law, Nargiza, never stops cooking and cleaning.  Once when I tried to bring a dish to the kitchen after dinner my host mom exclaimed, “Don’t do that! That’s what I have a bride for!”  Nargiza is Uzbek and barely speaks any Tajik.  She comes from a family with nine children and no father.  But like most families here, they are able to get by because all of her brothers live and work in Moscow.  The Moscow-induced man drought is very apparent.  Last week we went to a cousin’s birthday party and there were about ten women there and only one man.  Five of the girls were pregnant and all of their husbands are in Russia.  Another weird thing that I just learned about that contributes to the man drought is the draft system.  This is prime draft season and any 18-27 year old guy who isn’t in university is eligible to go.  Serving in the military is extra harsh here, as many soldiers go to remote border posts where there is very little food and no heating.  The draft system doesn’t seem highly organized---apparently eligible men can be picked up off the street and not even allowed to go home and gather their things.  So men who don’t have enough money to pay the necessary bribes to avoid service often hide out at home for the month or two long draft season.

Not having men around doesn’t seem to be the worst thing.  When I asked my host mother when in her life she was the happiest she said that she has always been very happy because her husband is a good man and has never laid a hand on her.  The fact that not being beaten was her sole requirement for life satisfaction seems telling.

Anyways, getting to know my Tajik fam better over the past few weeks has been exciting.  I feel lucky to be with such a kind and happy family.  Just as I’m starting to get comfortable though, it looks like it might be time to rock the boat again.  I’m looking into moving up north to a city called Khujand to look at the sustainability of some irrigation and drinking water projects there.  Will keep ya posted on the move!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cotton problems

The more I learn about farming in Tajikistan the more I wonder----between money lenders, input suppliers, the Water Department, cotton gins, the Electricity Department, the national government, local and district governments, even the Water Users Association---is there any group of people in Tajikistan that isn’t screwing farmers over.  An example of how  one can easily spend an entire day, or week, or month, or ten months, thinking themselves into a circle about the agriculture problems here----Irrigation infrastructure can’t be repaired farmers don’t have enough money to pay for rehabilitation.  Why don’t they have money to pay for rehabilitation?  One reason  is that they grow cotton rather than food crops.  Why do they grow cotton rather than food crops? Because, although the national government claims that farmers are free to grow whatever they want, they set annual quotas on how much cotton must be produced.  Why does the government have to force farmers to grow cotton?  Because growing cotton isn’t actually profitable.  Why isn’t growing cotton profitable?  One reason is that money lenders buy it for prices far below market value.  How do money lenders get away with buying cotton for prices far below market value? One reason is that Tajikistan has their own grading system for cotton quality (most of the world goes off of the USDA grading system) so lenders can tell farmers that their cotton is of poorer quality than it actually is.  Also because they let cotton sit around in gins before being processed so that the loans will accrue tons of interest.  Why do cotton farmers continue to use money lenders when they screw them over like this?  Because once they are already in debt for inputs they are forced to continue working with the same lender to pay back the debt.  Why do they use these lenders in the first place then?  Because their yields or low and they need money for seeds and fertilizer.  Why are their yields low?  One reason is that the land is salinized, eroded and otherwise degraded.  Why is the land salinized, eroded, and otherwise degraded? Because the land tenure system makes it such that no one owns the land that they farm on so they have no incentive to take care of it and also makes it such that if they let the land fallow and recover the government could take it away from then under the grounds that they aren’t using it.  Also because their irrigation systems are decrepit which leads to salinization, water waste, erosion, etc.  Why are their irrigation systems decrepit? Because farmers don’t have money to fix it.  Why don’t farmers have money to fix their irrigation infrastructure?  One reason  is that they grow cotton rather than food crops.  Back to square one.  Too many problems.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

the world powered by us

The government of Tajikistan has recently started cutting power in rural areas (apparently) in order to export it to Afghanistan.  My little town now gets only 1.5 hours of electricity per day.    This got me to thinking---how the heck does Afghanistan have more money than Tajikistan?  Haven’t they been at war for a bazillion years?  Then I realized that that may be precisely why they have money.  While the U.S. government is providing funding for me to explore my obscure interest in cotton farming in Central Asia they are also providing funding for Afghanistan to buy electricity from the country where I’m exploring my obscure interest in cotton farming.  So I can thank the government for my paycheck whilst also thanking it for the fact that I’m cold and suffering from Jesse McCartney withdrawal because my ipod won’t charge. 

A few other miscellaneous things I’ve stumbled upon over the past few weeks that can also be traced back to our government:

-The local bee-keeping NGO that my translator runs (providing her with one of the largest salaries in all of Shaartuz)
-About 60% of all irrigation rehabilitation projects over the past five years in the district I live in 
-The refurbishment of a historic mosque in a nearby town
-Two agricultural projects that I’ve seen while running the past few days, both funded by USAID, one that has created 10 greenhouses for poor families to grow vegetables and another  showing farmers how to grow onions that can be harvested before everybody elses onions so they make more money
-The 200 liters of imported beer I drank last weekend at the embassy/Marine compound/houses of Foreign Service friends, venues also courtesy of the U.S. government

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Love in Tajikistan

In honor of the recent celebration of Valentine’s Day in the states, a good friend of mine asked if I could write a post about love in Tajikistan.  Although I am far from being an authority on romantic love in any culture (if you have any familiarity with my dating history you might understand why my parents fear they won’t live to see a grandchild), I will try to oblige.

So I’ll start with the word-of-mouth, ballpark-guess, potentially BS statistic that 70% of marriages here are arranged.  It would be a stretch, however, to assume that the remaining 30% are based on love.  For example, a woman I know here fell in love with a man but he decided to marry another woman, so she married someone else to get back at him.  She ended up divorcing this second man and marrying another man after knowing him for one week, now she’s seven months pregnant with her first kid.  Did I mention she’s my age?  Another friend of mine was married last year to a man that her parents chose.  I asked her if she missed him as he’s working in Moscow and she smiled, rolled her eyes, and said “It’s not as if I, for example, lovehim.”  My host father, always an expert on American culture (one of his favorite activities is naming off American actors and then being shocked when I have no clue who they are) asked me on Valentine’s Day if I had a boyfriend in the states.  As if to console me by illustrating the financial practicality of my single-ness, he told me that if I wanted to get married here I would be worth eight sheep.  I’m no expert on livestock market prices but I think this compares favorably to my estimated net worth in Ghana of one cow.  This is either a reflection of economic difference between the two countries or my relative attractiveness on each continent. 

I think I’ll walk away from Tajikistan without those eight sheep though.  From what I’ve observed, marriage here is seriously not fun.  The daughter-in-law in my host family cooks every meal, every day, for all eight family members.  The mother and father are very kind people, it’s not that they treat her poorly, it’s just the norm that she does all the housework.  I haven’t seen it personally but I’ve heard that domestic violence is absurdly high and in many families women aren’t allowed to leave the house.  I’m still trying to untangle the status of women here though.  I get curve balls every day.  For example, the host family’s 30-year-old unmarried cousin who is perpetually texting with a random Turkish man that she met on the internet.  This doesn’t fit comfortably with the story of female oppression.  Aside from marriage, families are incredibly close---children fight not over who has to but who gets to live with and take care of their parents when they get old. 

Then there’s the issue of homosexuality.  Last month I brought in an article to a university student reading club that I was leading with predictions on changes that will happen in the next hundred years---ranging from the frightening ideas like humans becoming wired to computers to make their brains work faster, to environmental degradation like extensive ocean farming and resource extraction in Antarctica.  The students unanimously agreed that the prediction that scared them the most was that 80% of the world would legalize gay marriage.  I have two brilliant and otherwise open-minded Tajik friends who have separately told me that gay people should be banished from society.

All of this kind of makes you wonder who has it right.  Which is better---the western norm of desperately seeking romantic love, often even when it is at a cost to our emotional health, careers, friendships, and other areas of our lives, or the strategy of placing very little value on romantic love and marrying instead for practicality and economics.  On the Tajik side, it’s hard to argue that a system where domestic violence is commonplace and the daughter-in-law is essentially the family maid is fair to anyone.  And if you look to religious books (with my recent move to the country, and being a few hundred miles from anyone that I can effectively communicate with, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands for spiritual exploration) westerners have it all wrong too.  We spend so much time and energy searching for romantic love----which often ends up being more of an expression of two peoples’ egos than “love” ----when really we should focus on becoming love, seeing it in all things, and reflecting it in everything that we do.  To quote my dad’s favorite Louis Armstrong song, “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do, they’re really saying I love you…and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Sending you all of my Tajikilove <3 <3