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A Day in The Life

Wake up, get out of bed, throw a comb around your head……
In the summers, the days start very early here; it’s light at 4.00 am and that means timely awakenings. After some rumbling around, first point of action is to turn on the boiler in the bathroom,  that we turn off when we go to bed. We have found, that it’s better to turn these things off when you can to prevent fires or implosions of the boiler kettle. Then it’s on to the little kitchen, where (most of the times) Jelte prepares the coffee. The Alessi perculator is well travelled (New York, Rome, Milan, Pacific Palisades, San Pedro, Khorog Tajikistan) and still works its miracles; thanks to our many contributors, we get back to life with some, we think, well deserved real caffeine shots. Breakfast is usually a little dose of sweetened yoghurt, (for Jelte,) left-over plain rice with sugar, or some stale bread with cheese. When there is time, Christine makes some omelettes with whatever vegetables are available in the season.
Early morning hike & breakfast, Porshniev with Janja

After short showers with little or no water pressure, we turn off all electrical gear in the house and walk to work, a fifteen minute stroll. Our commute leads along Khorog State, one of the two local Universities and at 8 a.m.,  in the morning, you see what a local population explosion can do. The numbers of teenagers are amazing. They define street life and are happy to practice their English with us. Women and children rule the streets here, most able bodied men are working in Russia, remittances are very high.
While Christine wanders off to the Soviet-style offices of MSDSP, Jelte finds his way to PECTA, which has a nice little office in Central Park. This is certainly the best office location in town. The office has its own garden, where we hold meetings and because of its build, is nice and cool in the summers. The office houses the local tourist information centre and a handicraft store so there is always a lot of activity and, if you need a distraction, tourists to talk to. As reported in our earlier blog, we are now in the last two months of our posting and things are getting pretty busy,  since we need to finalize the last of our several projects before our departure in the beginning of October.
Apricots and plums being dried, Porshniev
The daily work results are a very mixed bag; we both came here to share our skills (“capacity-build” in NGO speak) and some days we celebrate small victories about lessons learnt (both by ourselves and our partners); other days we wonder in despair why the hell the lessons we taught a day, week or month earlier were forgotten but over-all, mutual respect is the end result, which is more than can be said of most other jobs we were employed in.
It took us a while to understand the local logic. Of course, in several preparation courses, you are educated about various senses of logic and time in different cultures but it still takes months to get used to age-old habits and concepts, which seem hard to break (if they need to be broken at all -  but that is another discussion). We had our light-bulb moment when we met with Pulod, a Pamiri marketeer (he owns an advertising and marketing agency, aptly called Promotion) who works in Dushanbe, has travelled extensively and understands the nuances of different cultures.
He explained to us that Tajiks reason and write circular (a distinctly Russian trade-mark), not linear (as we do) since they have learnt from a very young age to avoid being direct, which usually created difficulties and hard times. So, the locals are masters in avoiding direct questions, they will simply not address an issue head-on but will dance around the subject, especially when the outcome might be less pleasant for one of the participants.
Combine this with the Asian attitude towards loosing face,  plus the fact that there is a very strong sense of community (everything is shared, there is little for most), the fact that the country has been isolated and went through a protracted civil war, and you start to understand why certain customs are hard to break and why it’s especially hard to make unpopular decisions or to confront matters head on.
To communicate verbally like this is bad enough but it especially manifests itself in written form. It’s very hard to write a short concise e-mail in this context or, even harder, to formulate terms and conditions for a future project you might be working on. Deadlines are not easy to put on paper. Of course, this is not something which can be solved in a couple of weeks, or months,  but at least, we can try. See whether some of it sticks. We are very proud that we have taught the effective use of the word  'no' (or if in doubt, don’t) to some of our colleagues. This has helped things considerably.
Surprisingly enough, the younger generation has the same attitude as the older, Soviet style, managers. They like the West and embrace their icons and brands (Adidas and Nike are the logos of choice) but many of them are still set in old Russian style mechanisms. Respect for authority and not confronting higher-ups is rampant. The consequences of standing up to superiors are still feared,  sometimes for good reasons, we have noticed. The boss is well connected, so beware....

Mady and Christine Dushanbe-Khorog, 16 hours drive

We both are fortunate to work with great people and we start seeing the results of some of our efforts via them, which is hugely satisfying.
Back to our schedule; done with the morning sessions, we go back home for lunch around noon. After having tried out all the local haunts, there is no better place than home to enjoy a decent meal. Some fresh bread, hot tea, local cheese, local salads (pommodori!) and some goodies from our red-crescent packages are the items of choice. No water pressure in the afternoon, so the dishes have to wait and then it’s back to the offices. More meetings and sessions, always tea or coffee (Nescafe) during the afternoon hours.
Frustration about the office internet and networks; the systems are patched together and the local IT guy is not the most popular man around (although he does his best in very challenging circumstances).
 Home around 5 or 6 p.m.; left over dishes of the afternoon; dinner alone or with some of our many co-volunteer friends and then to bed. There is not much more to do here than a stroll through the park. We have cable television with BBC World News and Al Jazeera so we stay informed about the troubles of the world and we have “dongles” (the sticks which give private internet access) but the Internet is very slow here in Shosh Khorog (South Khorog) where we live. No reliable connections, SKYPE won’t work most of the times; so all we can do is some e-mails and some simple web surfing. Network is down quite frequently,  as most of you know.
We have been lucky with the electricity it seems; hardly any power outages during this  winter, some minor interruptions recently but nothing to worry about. Old-timers told us that only three years ago, the service was horrible (2 hours on, 2 hours off); try to stay warm or to keep the water boiling with those kinds of schedules.

Tourism Class - Khorog 2011
 Right now it’s Ramadan but the Ismaelis don’t worry too much about that; some local people fast but most don’t so we hardly notice a difference here (although the local liquor store, where we get our beers, only sells juices now till the Fast is over, no more Heineken or Tuborg). However, when you work with suppliers in Dushhanbe, which houses more Sunnis who strictly adhere to and observe Ramadan, then you might have to wait till the end of the Fast. People typically take long breaks or take it easy during the Holy Month; the design of the new website or the new brochures will have to be postponed.
Wrigley, after dinner

So, all in all, it's very bearable; isolated and cold during the winter, warm and pleasant during the summer months (summer and fall being the seasons of preference).   Our summer evenings are often spent out in our small yard,  lounging on the pine furniture we had the presence of mind to order from local artisans.  The alternative would have been those cheap plastic Chinese chairs that you walk away with when you get up, because with the heat, they've firmly stuck to your butt and thighs!  The cats  (yes, plural) join us.  It seems that word has got around the feline community that THE place to hang out for the occasional chicken bone and saucer of milk is 50 Milikbekov St, Khorog.

Drinkies in the yard during Pat & Mady's visit to Taj

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