Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,
After graduating from University of Michigan in 2007, I joined the United States Peace Corps. Like all other newly serving Peace Corps Volunteers, I had no idea what to expect.  As a UM alum, Peace Corps has a special significance to me.  As you referenced in your commencement address to the UM Class of 2010, President John F. Kennedy laid the foundation for the Peace Corps 50 years ago at the steps of the Michigan Union at a 2AM campaign stop.  He challenged those assembled to “contribute part of [their] life to this country”, to not just be a witness to the world around them but to be a part of the world around them.
President Kennedy inspired a generation to put the best face of America forward.  Thousands of Americans embraced that challenge and have lived in the poverty that hundreds of millions around the world call daily life, have worked side-by-side with citizens who spend years trying to earn as much as some Americans earn in an hour, have seen the injustice that inequality, corruption, poor development practices, and apathy breed.  These same Americans have also seen the hope that simple acts inspire.
We have seen the smile on  young students’ faces as they recite their first English phrase and the outpouring of emotion when a young woman gains the confidence to stand-up against an abusive boyfriend.  We have been a part of teaching new farming techniques to increase growth efficiency and have learned about traditional planting and medical techniques that are effective.  The traditional boundaries of developed, developing, and underdeveloped are no longer truly appropriate.
Rural villages in Armenia have streaming video on laptops, even without constant running water. A young girl living in a yurt in the middle of the Kazakh steppe can talk on Skype to her cousin in America after working outside all day to support her family.  But, the technological innovations are not replacements for basic education and for basic infrastructure.  The Internet can break down barriers to communication, can open the door to new ideas, and can share traditions instantly.  But, without education, without running water, without quality health care, without regular heat, the Internet connection is not enough.
As Americans, we need to start by asking ourselves how we are connecting with the world around us.  But, we do not have to travel to across borders to visit an underdeveloped or developing nation. Sadly, these places exist in our backyard.  I grew-up in a Detroit suburb.  My family traveled to Detroit regularly, but it was still a destination, where we went to see great musical theater, to go to the hockey game, the ball game, or grab an exciting meal.  While my family has had a connection to the city for generations, the city itself was always a destination, never a place I considered home.
I grew-up with stories of how my grandfather dedicated his life to serving the Detroit-area community as a public service attorney.  His was the example we followed when we would go into the city for one-time events, when we donated money to support organizations doing vital work, when we participated in discussions about how to make the city better.  Yet, rather than moving to Detroit after graduating, I went overseas.
When I returned to Michigan after two years and three months in Kazakhstan and then another four months of travel around Central Asia and the Caucuses, I felt lost.  I did not yet know how to talk to people about my experience – how can someone who has never lived in another world relate?  I did not know what I wanted to do.  I had the feeling that I needed to top my experience in Peace Corps.  I listened to Peace Corps alumni share how their two years in PC was the epitome of their life, how they will never forget those times and the people they worked with.  I do not want my time in Kazakhstan to be the focal point of what I contribute to help the world, I do not want to look back at an amazing two years simply full of fondness.
The challenge is not doing better or doing more, the challenge is continuing to do something meaningful and finding a path to contribute.  It is very scary to return to what most Americans consider “real life”.  Living in one place too long, the tendency is to view everything outside that picture as only peripherally relevant.  In the States, we are particularly good at this game.  Other perspectives are noted but quickly discarded.  Other areas around the country are mentioned, but we latch onto our hometown and our state ever tighter.  Other countries are deemed strategically important and resources are poured into them, but people and the media are distracted as soon as one pop star dies.
We need to do a better job staying focused.  The problems confronting the world are big but they require focusing on the individual as much as broad strategy.  Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach for America are three excellent examples of how America can impact individuals at home and abroad and have larger strategies for engagement, development, and growth.  These, however, are not enough.
Many American urban and rural areas are in the same position as developing and underdeveloped countries – they need support to create and enact ideas that they do not know or have the ability to develop on their own.  Programs bringing outsiders to work with locals are really important.  The mix of ideas, backgrounds, and experiences creates innovation.  Often, those outsiders adopt the community as their new home and people from the community have their first chance to move outside their bubble and be a part of a broader society.
As I found in Peace Corps, creating actual sustainability is the key to any development strategy. Individuals need to learn that there is always more to learn and need to have in mind the concept of fading into the background without being noticed.  Success should often be measured by how easy it is to leave without the impact of your departure changing the situation.  Emotionally, we tend to have problems with this technique.  We want to be liked, we want the credit.  Other people taking credit for our ideas and truly believing that they are their own, sometimes this is even more valuable.
Thank you for your commitment to expanding public service programs.  Like most programs focused on improving society, more can be done.  Peace Corps should refine its mission and dedicate more resources to inspiring volunteers to think innovatively,  to look at how to make a difference for that one child who may one day be a leader of their country as well as taking advantage of their unique position to make a society-wide difference.  All Americans should be encouraged to give back to their communities, to challenge their norms, and learn about their neighbors close by and far away.
I have been searching for inspiration since returning from my travels: how do I continue what I started in Peace Corps?  Commencement ceremonies tend to be a good place to make that find.  Your speech at the University of Michigan Commencement has provided me with the energy I have been searching for.  Your speech reminded me what it means to be an American, the responsibility we have to each other, and our ability to make our community and the world a better place.
Sincerely,
Perry Teicher
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May 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

SMS Kazakhstan

My friend, Chiara, has been traveling around Kazakhstan for the last few weeks.  Here are some of her text messages:

Astana is cold.

This bus could be anywhere for all I know, kind of looks like a snowy version of the moon.

I don’t know…I’m somewhere…I hope.

Just 2 more hours. I’m lonely and I really want a cheeseburger.

Feeling super nauseous…how far is the apt?

Someone just took a SHIT in front of the mosque mall

Having a WEIRD day in aralsk

Everyone seems to think I’m going to get robbed or murdered

Spent the first 2.5 hours with the militsia who turned out to be fairly good company

I do a great angry soviet face

Call me when you’re bored…there’s a 1 in 3 chance I’ll be on a train somewhere

I’m back at that Turkish restaurant again, much to the wait staff’s overwhelming delight.

No, I didn’t get arrested, and I even made a friend!

March 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Back to America

Sunday, February 28 2010. 7AM

At 1:40 PM, Saturday February 27 2010, I returned to America.  2 and a half years since I was last here – a few days longer to the day.  Since then, I’ve been trying to make sense of what it means to return to America.  Immediately, I’ve been organizing my stuff.  Driving to Heathrow, it struck me how much stuff “we” accumulate.  20 minutes of road is lined with huge storage container facilities.  People – particularly in America and Western Europe – have a lot of stuff.  Then, I returned home and find our house covered in things I shipped home from my Central Asia.  It’s all beautiful, but still a lot.  The next few days will involve a lot of rummaging and figuring out what exactly I intended to do with everything.

Yesterday, we drove straight home from the airport, except for a short stop at New York Bagel.  My first bagel and salmon cream cheese in two and a half years.  West Bloomfield looks pretty much the same.  Orchard Lake Road is lined with unwalkable stores, there are no babushkas selling fresh jam, fruit, and vegetables on the street, stores are big, and everyone speaks English.  The next few days will be interesting.  I miss everyone from KZ, from my travels – but it’s nice to be back, to be with my family, and to not be living out of a suitcase for a while.

*** Although I’m back in America, I realize I haven’t posted my thoughts or pictures of a large portion of my travels.  More updates from the last three months coming soon.

February 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on the Caucuses

Thursday, February 25 2010
Flight from Yerevan, Armenia to London, England
There is still much more to describe about Central Asia, but as the Caucasian part of the trip has most immediately concluded, I’ll try for a more timely update first.

A quick diversion.  As I was writing the above, the “fasten seat belts” sign went off and every one around me quickly stood up, grabbed their laptops, bags, and blankets, and readjusted to empty seats.  As we were on the runway, just after an announcement from our pilot that we may be departing 10 minutes early, he announced that due to the air traffic controller strike in Paris, we can’t depart until 37 minutes after the hour – a delay of 17 minutes.  This did not sit well with the man across the aisle.  He scoffed, complaining to his wife (or girlfriend who he went on to make-out with throughout the 17 minutes).  This will be a fun transition.

Back to the Caucasus.  It’s unfair to both Central Asia and the Caucasus to compare them.  They have unique history, culture, geography, people – but, as I spent the last three months traipsing across both regions – I will do this unjust thing.

One of the most noticeable differences is the size.  Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) are huge.  Due to the mountains and the width of the country, it is close to impossible to cross any of the countries in one day, particularly by marshutka.  In Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia a taxi or marshutka can get almost anywhere in the country within a day.

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but stepping into Georgia, I crossed into the first Christian country on the journey.  Central Asia and Azerbaijan aren’t particularly observant, but I became very used to hearing the call to prayer throughout the day.  Georgia and Armenia do not include this snippet of life.

Generally (except on one marshutka to a church in Armenia), public transportation in the Caucuses is not nearly as crowded as Central Asia.  In Aktobe, I became comfortable with being on a bus where there were no air molecules separating me and other passengers.  In the Caucuses, there generally seems to be space to breath on public transportation.

In Central Asia, passengers and the drivers would often say a short prayer before leaving on a trip – in all forms of transportation: taxis, shared cars, marshutkas.  As Muslims, this was clearly a Muslim prayer.  Christian Georgians do the same thing – only   also cross themselves and offer a slightly different prayer – same intent.  I didn’t see this in Armenia.

Prayer clothes are tied on trees throughout the region near shrines.  Roadside markers lie on the sides of all roads where someone died.  Most drivers would have failed drivers ed.  Everyone is amazed with the unusually warm Winter.

Everyone holds stereotypes, strong opinions, pride, and their versions of history.

Food is good and I was served a lot – again and again.

I encountered robust hospitality, kindness, and a desire for me to enjoy myself and learn about the culture in each country.  I was met in Azerbaijan by a good friend of my parents’ friend – he made my experience in Azerbaijan worthwhile and wonderful.  I wouldn’t have seen even half of what I did in those two weeks, ate nearly as well, or made gained a good friend and new relatives if not for him.  In Armenia, I was hosted by the relatives of Kazakhstani Armenian friends – my stomach and heart are still full from how great those two weeks were.  We traveled, ate, I gained more new relatives, and toured parts of the country outside of Lonely Planet – and I got more interesting stories about the sites.  My friends‘ friends and people I met in Tbilisi also made me eat and drink more than I thought I could handle – but it was all so tasty.  Whenever anyone goes to Tbilisi for the first, they tend to immediately fall in love with the city.  My love comes not just from the buildings and the ambience but particularly from my first guesthouse and my new friends – and chachapuri.

In addition to friends of friends, relatives of friends, and absolute strangers not related to any friends or family (to my knowledge), Peace Corps Volunteers (and EVS people in Georgia) have been particularly outstanding.  PCVs in each country (Central Asia and the Caucuses) hosted me and friends, showed us around, and made us feel at home.

Thank you to everyone who hosted me, fed me, ate with me, drank with me, tried to teach new languages, showed me around, connected me with friends and acquaintances, and put-up with me when I thought I had appendicitis.

Even people who know better – Couchsurfers, backpackers, PCVs, Fulbrighters – ask “which country do you like the most”.  There’s no answer to that question.  Each were great in their ways, and each have their uncomfortable parts.

As I’m sitting on the plane at the moment eating lunch – this post is very much a stram of consciousness.  I will miss natural food.  The last two and half years I’ve eaten largely (though not entirely) unprocessed meat, juice, fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk products, and bread – I don’t seem to remember that exists in as great of quantities in the US.  Fortunately, there was still Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, and candy to remind me of processing and artificial flavors across my travels.

February 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Airports and Country #2: Kyrgyzstan

The Dushanbe airport is a mess.  It appears that out of all the aid money the country is receiving, very little has gone to airport infrastructure or training – or, if it has, someone is doing a very poor job.  I quickly discovered that the way to determine where international departures is located is not any sign (as there are no visible signs) but from the crowd of people huddled in a large clump outside a two-door entrance, where only one door opens.  Unfortunately, since the clump of people is so tightly packed, the door can only by people jamming themselves through all at once, while at the same time having their ID checked by an overwhelmed security guard.

Once you get through this first border point, you wait in a short line for the x-ray scanner.  This section was more of a line, as there is not that much space to clump.  After x-ray, you move to check-in, another opportunity for clumping.  Check-in was pretty smooth, but then we moved to Border Control.  The security guards sporadically came around to turn the globs of people into Kindergarden-straight lines, waiting behind the red marking – but also moved certain people to the front of lines or simply didn’t see as people decided to jump in front of the line, to join the place of their friend or relative who was “holding the spot” for them.  The flight itself on Tajik Air and arrival into Bishkek was very smooth.

Unlike the Dushanbe airport, the Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan airport is a model of efficiency.  While I had to wait about 20 minutes for a border officer to arrive in order to purchase my visa (available upon arrival at the airport), once she got there, it took 5 minutes.  Customs was quick, and a taxi into the city was the price my friends told me.

I really liked Bishkek.  A number of friends from Kazakhstan warned me that it’s dangerous, not so interesting, small, and Soviet.  While I didn’t have any problems, I don’t doubt the dangerous part – particularly is walking around at night.  There are lots of parts of the city with no public lighting and a good number of parks and streets with few people.  Immediately upon arriving, however, I met a number of friends of friends who very quickly became my good friends.  Bishkek has a much more expansive restaurant and bar scene than Dushanbe, along with a good art scene.  The first evening, we went to an interesting show put on by the progressive theater company.  A few days later, we went to a beautiful concert at the Opera House – in between, lots of food, drinks, and museums.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jewish Dushanbe and Lots of Food

The Tajik Jewish community was never large, but it is now down to very low numbers, due to emigration and the Civil War, in addition to normal aging.  Tajikistan has a mix of Ashkenazi Jews who were relocated to the area during Stalin-times, and Bukharan Jews, having spread to Tajikistan from nearby Uzbkekistan.  The overall Jewish population is heavily concentrated in Dushanbe and is very low.  People who could leave with the fall of the Soviet Union left.  If not at that point, the Civil War made a good time to try to escape.  The few who are left are mainly elderly and many of them know very little about Judaism and are Jewish based on small snippets of life experience, and blood.  Dushanbe does have a very active synagogue, which we attended for Shabbat Morning Services, followed by a traditional Bukharan lunch.

Tajikistan went through a very bloody civil war in the early ‘90s.  Since it’s very difficult to ask people to describe experiences that they’d likely prefer to forget, the topic usually only came up in vague allusions.  Olga, however, talked freely of this time.  She remembers not being able to walk in the streets for days at a time.  Gun fighting would erupt at random points during the day.  People killed other people indiscriminately.  A person’s national and ethnic category were less important than simply being a person – this made you a target.

Dushanbe doesn’t have its own JDC office; its programs are funded and overseen by the Bishkek office, with Olga working alone to manage the programs within the country.  The Dushanbe program consists mainly of providing necessary services for the elderly.  Olga, a former doctor (a trend for JDC representatives in the FSU), spends most of her time arranging food packages and conducting home visits.  The Jewish community, however, consists of more than elderly Jews.  There is a vibrant, if relatively small, observant community led by a dynamic and driven man – Misha – who holds regular services.  The observant community is a mix of “Russian” and “Bukharan” Jews, but since the majority have lived in Tajikistan for most of their life, the service was in a Bukharan/Sephardic style.  Saturday, after Khojand, Meghan and I went to morning services.  There were 12 men praying, in addition to the two of us.  Along with 10 Dushanbe Jews, there were two other American guests, one man originally from Georgia (Caucasus Georgia) and the other originally from Bukhara.  Lunch followed services.  It was difficult to walk after lunch due to the immense amount of home-cooked food.

Starters
Baked eggs
Potato slices
Fresh vegetables

First Course
Baked fish, slides off the bone, more flavor than any other Central Asian fish I’ve eaten

Second Course
Bukharan Cholent

Dessert

Chai
Fruit

Drinks (throughout the meal)

Wine
Vodka

The menu doesn’t do justice to the immense amount of delicious food that was on the table.  Fortunately, after the meal, we had the chance to walk it off at an Arts Fair with products from around the country.  Tajikistan has beautiful art and handicrafts – also makes you very hungry after a few hours of shopping.  Dushanbe, as the capital of Tajikistan, has a variety of types of restaurants, including Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Georgian, and classic American steakhouse.  Tajikistan’s status as the poorest of the Central Asian countries, however, is very clearly reflected in its nice restaurant prices.  Our meal at the Steakhouse (a very tasty properly cooked medium rare New York Strip, not so good chili, and beer) was only $10.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

61 Days

Wednesday, January 20 2010

13:33

Today is the 61st day I’ve been out of Kazakhstan and my 3rd day out of Central Asia.  All parts of the trip have been amazing, particularly in thinking about how many people I’ve met, how many climates I’ve jumped through, and how generally smooth it has been.

Tajikistan

Our first stop was Tajikistan.  With two friends, we flew from Almaty to Dushanbe and then went up into the Pamir Mountains.  From the relative tropics of Dushanbe, we hit the minimal to no visibility of the Pamir Highway on one lane gravel roads that serve as the main transit route for huge trucks from China to Tajikistan, only a few meters from Afghanistan and a straight drop into the river dividing the countries.  Daytime on this route is fun, but since it’s often a 14 hour drive, during the Winter you can’t avoid traveling at night, and in our jeep, the lights started to go out while trucks were coming toward us and we were on the river side.  Fortunately, the driver got the lights on before the truck reached us.  The lights lasted for about 5 minutes, then flicked back off.  After an hour of this, you start to ignore the fact that you can’t see.  There’s no need to even shut your eyes since it’s absolute darkness anyways.  You know the river is somewhere nearby and as long as you stay dry, you know you’re okay.

Khorog, the capital of the Pamirs, is an educated city nestled in a mountain valley.  There’s a great deal of poverty and a huge level of unemployment, but the people were incredibly friendly.  After a day of delirious laying in bed and near the toilet from a bad apple, we met our driver and continued on through the Pamir Highway.  The driver, Aleishai, had a small Niva, my new favorite car.  This Russian jeep always looks like it’s going to fall apart.  But, when it breaks – as it did in the middle of the night in the middle of the mountains – a fix is always relatively easily possible.  After a stop for tea and a new engine belt in the mountains, we made it to Bulenkol, a village of around 200, near a beautiful mountain lake.  Tajik yak makes a great midnight meal.  The near universal phrase we heard from everyone from the moment we arrived in Tajikistan was, “Come back in the Spring and Summer, it’s warm and prettier then”.  In Bulenkol we found out why.  The lake is amazing in the Winter, but the 3 km hike starts to get a little chilly by the end of it.  Despite this, I wouldn’t trade our winter hike for a summer holiday anywhere on my travels.

The next day, we continued down the road another couple hundred kilometers to Murgab.  Murgab may have once been a city of factories, slight ethnic diversity (with its majority Kyrgyz population), and a friendly community for tourists, but when we were there the city was simply frozen.  All of the guesthouses were either closed or their one available room was busy due to only having one pechka (heater).  It seems the city received the message that we wanted an official greeting party, since when we went to the bazaar to find a place to stay, three military people surrounded the car, demanded our passports, and provided a nice introduction to Murgab hospitality.  After extraditing ourselves from that reception (with the help of a friend of theirs who drew their attention away), we again had an unsuccessful search.  As a last option, we went to the ACTED office.  One of their employees (who like everyone who works in the near deserted building, hasn’t been paid for at least a few months since ACTED stopped funding a program that was supposed to be sustainable but didn’t last) has a guesthouse and invited us to stay there, as long as we didn’t mind staying in the same room as some German guests.  The place worked out great and these GTZ guys were wonderful, as was the owner.  The next day we planned on camel trekking.  We learned, however, that camels (or at least their owners) don’t like winter, and were scattered around the mountain side.  Instead of driving another 60 km and waiting a day to possibly find the camels, we returned to Khorog and spent a few more days in the mountain capital.

The main problem with our return from Murgab was a lack of money.  Despite a huge investment from the Aga Khan Foundation, in regard to tourism as well as social investment, the banking system in Khorog is not as expansive as the mountains.  Coupled with the holiday, we had a financial crisis.  Between Meghan and I, we had enough money to either go to the Afghan bazaar or return to Dushanbe.  Since it was Saturday, the banks would be closed on Sunday.  But, we really wanted to go to this Afghan market and our driver clearly wanted to take us, as we had agreed to the night before.  When we met him in the morning, we shared our predicament.  Many people had said the banks would be open in the morning, until lunch, so we figured there would be no problem getting the money.  We were wrong.  Fortunately, our driver knew how to break into a bank.

He called a friend – or cousin – who works at the bank.  While we were waiting, another friend of his was walking by (we were standing in front of the only bank where our ATM cards had worked a few days before, and which also happens to be located next to a police station), and they decided to try to get the bank open.  Meghan and I are trying to look unassuming while Aleishai and his friend go through a back alley to what must be the back entrance to the bank.  After about 5 minutes, we cross to the other side of the street, by the Niva, to avoid standing right next to the police officers outside the station.  After another 10 minutes, our driver walks out the front door of the bank.  At least 5 bank staff are inside, waiting for us.  They turned on the ATM machine.  It started fine but even after 10 minutes, wouldn’t let us withdraw money.  They take us to another bank branch, down the street.  This branch has no ATM machine, but a card reader that they say should allow us to directly withdraw from a MasterCard.  Meghan is the only one with a MasterCard, so we run her card through the machine 3 or 4 times.  They can’t get any money out.  We go back to the other bank for one more try.  The ATM works.

Every Saturday, there’s an open bazaar between the Tajik and Afghan borders that requires crossing into a neutral zone between the countries, with no visa needed.  The Saturday we were there was Kurban Eid, a holiday that many thought would entail all bazaars being closed.  We decided to risk it  Driving with Aleishai, we went to the Afghan border.  The bazaar was closed so we couldn’t cross.  But, the Tajik border guards were very friendly – and bored – agreeing to a small photo session, and even smiling for the pictures.

Some pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/pteicher/

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Very Delayed Day 1 (Dushanbe, Tajikistan)

The last 28 days I have been traveling around two countries in Central Asia: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  The trip has been amazing in many ways and very cold at parts.  Winter is beautiful here, but tourists are not common.  The first response to meeting anyone – in a taxi, at the bazaar, in a guest house, while riding hourses – is “Come back in the summer, it’s beautiful then.”  I’m sure it’s true, but it’s been very nice being the only tourists in a city and mountain roads, being practically alone on mountain trails, and having lakeside gazebos to ourselves.
Tomorrow, we cross the border into Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan to enter my third post-Peace Corps country.  Appropriately, below is the first update on my travels.  I’m only 28 days behind.  At some point I’ll catch-up to the present.  I anticipate minimal Internet access the next few weeks, but please send e-mails and I’ll reply when I can.
Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Years.

Tuesday, December 1 2009

Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Prior to arriving in Tajikistan, I had very little idea about the country, outside of the general impression of poverty that sticks to its name whenever you hear its name in Central Asia.  We flew into Dushanbe from Almaty on Friday, November 20 on SCAT Airlines.  I flew with this company once before, when my family visited Kazakhstan in July 2008.  The quality has not changed in this time.  The flight still felt like the name sounds.  Fortunately, registration and boarding was much calmer than the pushing that categorized the Kazakhstani boarding process.

In the airport, we were joined by a large collection of what appeared to be Afghan migrant workers flying home.  There was nothing abnormal about this, except the Kazakh men standing in front of the group, giving directions to the clearly confused and non-Russian and Kazakh speaking group.  This group, however, did not fly to Tajikistan with us but likely left on the flight to Kabul soon after.

Although we were assigned seats on our flights, these numbers and letters are more loose suggestions that are completely ignored.  It was a 30-person propellor plane where passengers took their seats on a first-come, first-serve basis.  We flew over the mountains, left the cold of Almaty and arrived in what seemed like the Tajik tropics.  The weather was much too hot for our heavy winter jackets, providing a nice first impression of Tajikistan, at least until we reached the door of the airport and customs processing.

Our arrival coincided with at least one other international flight.  There were no Customs lines, simply Customs globs.  People surged forward, moved a few meters, surged again, stopped, then pushed up in tiny steps.  Fortunately, the daughter of my former Russian tutor’s good friend (from her Russian teaching time in Angola) works at the Dushanbe airport, met us and expedited our Customs process.  Three minutes later, on the other side of the globs, we were waiting for our luggage.  The international terminal has two luggage carrousels, neither of which are labeled with their flight.  The four of us jumped between carrousels, eventually found our luggage, dragged it past the always-present Central Asian baggage check men, and searched for our acquaintance whom we had arranged to meet us at the airport.

There had been a miscommunication about AM and PM.  Since this acquaintance had the keys to the apartment we planned to stay in, we took a taxi to a guest house where an Almaty friend works with the owner.  The taxi driver, however, initially took us to another hotel as we were deciding where to go, at which point we directed him to the new location.  He didn’t know where the guest house was, so we called.  He misunderstood the directions.  After about 10 minutes in the car, we arrive at the big gates of the guest house, about a ten minute walk from the Dushanbe Tsum (The Former Soviet Union everything store). The taxi driver, flummoxed that he stopped for 10 seconds at the first hotel and then drove an extra two kilometers, insisted on raising his price.  In the end, we split the difference, paying a little extra but not close to the additional 30 somoni he demanded.

This first taxi experience was not representative of Tajikistan taxis overall.  Dushanbe has multiple public transportation options.  Since central Dushanbe is walkable, within the center, transportation is rarely an issue.  As we found when we went to the JDC office, however, when you go to the microregions, the city expands.  Fortunately, in a city of only 80,000 people, even the furthest microregion is not that far.

Option 1: the bus – specific routes, lots of space for people, standing and sitting, runs from the morning through evening, 1 somoni.

Option 2: numbered Chinese marshutkas – fits around 10 passengers, set routes (although somewhat confusing as to go outside the Center, the same number seems to lead to different destinations), also morning to evening, 1 or 2 somoni.

Option 3: numbered shared taxis – set routes (same as the marshutkas), less people so greater comfort, quicker, morning to evening, 2 somoni.

Option 4: official taxi – call ahead, arrange pick-up and destination, anytime, at least 10 somoni.

Option 5: freelance street taxi – pick-up a taxi on the street (often with the “Taxi” sign, no implication that it’s a registered taxi, only that they want people to know they’ll take passengers), negotiate up-front, short trips, 5 somoni, longer trips minimum 10 somoni, to the microregions 15 somoni.  You pay by trip, not by the number of people.  Trips to/from the airport from the Center should cost between 10 and 15 somoni.

Tajikistan is much less expensive than Kazakhstan.  Our last night in Tajikistan, we went to a nice Steak House in central Dushanbe.  My juicy, properly cooked steak cost $10.  At a comparable restaurant in Almaty, the steak would be at least $30.  The cost differential is even more pronounced outside of Dushanbe.  In Khojand, the second largest city in the country and the capital of the most prosperous region, our dinners cost around $3 for a substantial meal of rabbit.

In addition to requiring less money, people in Tajikistan have change.  Kazakhstan is still working on this aspect of the open market.  Taxi drivers, kiosks, and proper stores all often have a small bills deficit in Kazakhstan.  Fortunately, this problem has not migrated south.  We paid for 5 somoni items with a 100 somoni bill – there was change with no argument.

Dushanbe

We shed our winter clothes and headed to meet our intended airport acquaintance, Patrick.  Joining me in Tajikistan have been two friends, Steffen – who teaches English in Aktobe and is doing research on Central Asia – and Meghan, who works at the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia in Almaty.  Both Steffen and Meghan found a contact in Dushanbe independent of the other – Kim.  Kim is on the same fellowship on which Steffen previously held in another country.  Kim also works at the Eurasia Foundation in Dushanbe.  None of us knew that this Kim was the same person and Kim did not know that she was in touch with two people of the same travel group.  Fortunately for us, Kim was a wonderful hostess and let us crash at her apartment in the center of Dushanbe when we first arrived and throughout our time in Dushanbe.

Dushanbe’s buildings are beautiful.  The hulking Soviet buildings still occupy a number of blocks, but your focus invariably falls onto the more numerous three to four story brightly colored buildings.  These are also Soviet era, but in a much more relaxed style.

Compared to Almaty, the city feels and looks like a provincial regional capital.  The buildings are all low, there are no glass megaliths, and I have not seen one traffic jam.  There are very few hulking Soviet-era buildings (although a number of apartment buildings line Rudaki, the main street).  Rather, the city has a large collection of bright structures that look to be out of a colonial period.

All three of us arrived left Kazakhstan horribly sick.  Swine flu is not funny, but most of our jokes revolved around our possible fevers, painful coughs, and the need to look healthy until we cleared Customs.  My going away party the Thursday night before may have contributed to this feeling, as well.  In Dushanbe, the warm weather cleared my head, but the cough and weariness persisted.  We thought an elixir could be the Ecuadorian/Mexican restaurant for lunch.  Particularly as Kazakhstan has no good Mexican food, as soon as we dropped our luggage at the apartment, we dashed to the best Latin American food in Central Asia.  Surprisingly, we were not disappointed.  Unfortunately, we were all still worn out.

December 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Все Актобе

2 года и 3 месяца закончились. Теперь я вернувшийся волонтер Корпуса мира, за исключением путешествия по Центральной Азии в течение четырех месяцев, и возвращение в Америку только в марте 2010 года. Мое официальное закрытие службы в Алматы было таким как я ожидал: документы, несколько встреч, а затем – я завершил службу в Корпусе Мира.
Последние дни в Актобе были более значимыми днями. Подготовка к отъезду началась около недели, полторы назад, когда я начал раскладывать мои вещи вокруг – те, что я оставляю в Актобе, вещи которые отправляю домой, и сопровождающие меня по крайней мере в Алматы. Затем началось прощание. “Золотое сердце” 3, Английский клуб Хеллоуин, вечерний Шаббат по пятницам, вечеринка “Helloween”, вечер кино с волонтерами в Мегацентре Актобе. После этого, приближение отъезда казалось нереальным.

Мои два года в Актобе были удивительными и отъезд переживался очень трудно. Я плакал, плакал мои друзья – особенно в последние два дня. Но, как сказала моя мама, когда мы говорили по телефону за день до моего отъезда: “Лучше, когда ты печалишься о чем-то, тогда понимаешь, что у тебя есть связь с друзьями и то, что ты сделал здесь”. 3 ноября я устроил прощальную вечеринку, собрав моих ближайших друзей. Несколько моих друзей спланировали эту ночь – они сделали удивительную работу. На следующий день наша организация организовала мероприятие с моими коллегами и волонтерами клуба «Д.А.Р.».

Я должен был вылететь на следующий день, 5 ноября, в 10:30 утра. В 6:30 утра, мне позвонили из “Эйр Астана” и сообщили что мой рейс откладывается по крайней мере до 16:30. затем отложили рейс еще на час. Я вернулся домой чтобы поспать и через несколько часов уточнил время отправления. Полет был перенесен на 18:30 вечера. Четверг был трудным. Я был готов к отъезду утром, но еще не был полностью готов оставить моих друзей. Дополнительный день в городе добавил дополнительный стресс. Я хотел увидеть всех снова, но я уже попрощался. День затянулся. Я был готов попрощаться в аэропорту, но не был готов пройти через долгие прощания. Несколько друзей навестили меня дома, и так прошел день. Мы отправились в аэропорт около 17.00. Через пять минут после того, как мы туда добрались, время прибытия вновь было  скорректировано – в 21:30 вечера. Пришли другие друзья чтобы попрощаться. Мы ждали, играли в Мафию. Время вылета опять передвинули на 22:40 вечера. Поскольку я не живу недалеко от аэропорта, пятеро из нас вернулись ко мне домой на ужин. Около 21:30 вечера, мы отправляемся обратно в аэропорт, поскольку время вылета не изменилось и прошел регистрацию и началась посадка. Я приехал в Алма-Ату около 3 утра.

Люди говорят, много красивых вещей, когда вы уезжаете и эмоции на пределе. Слезы текут, как только вы посмотрите на лицо человека, который также находится на грани слез. Легко думать обо всем хорошем, раз и забыть о тяжелые времена, времена мы ссорились, упущенные шансы, те возможности, которые не использовали. Я могу учиться на опыте трудных времен, но было столько позитивного, что всего два года, проведенные в Актобе останутся ярким событием в моей жизни.

Я сказал моим друзьям, что я вернусь. Это хорошая фраза и простой способ смягчить вину, когда чувствуете, что вы расстаетесь с людьми. Если вы говорите, что еще вернетесь, то расставаться не так сложно. Это не обязательно должно быть правдой. Это жизнь и вы никогда не знаете, как все сложится, но я вполне планирую  увидеть моих друзей снова, чтобы увидеть успехи моей организации, что они сделали что-то большее. Когда я уезжал мы улыбались, даже сквозь слезы. Я хочу, чтобы все улыбнулись снова.

Для всех, кто был со мной два года, еще раз благодарю вас за ваши мысли, идеи и поддержку.

Каждому в Актобе, благодарю Вас за то, что изменили мою жизнь за то, что сделали меня лучше, как человека, учили меня, и за совершенные великие дела. До скорого.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Left Aktobe

7 November 2009
Almaty

2 years and 3 months is over.  I’m now a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, except for the “still living in Kazakhstan and traveling around Central Asia for four months” and only returning to America in March 2010.  My official Close of Service in Almaty was anti-climatic: paperwork, a few meetings, and then – I completed my Peace Corps service.

The last few days in Aktobe were the more meaningful days.  Preparation for leaving started about a week and a half before, when I began to lay my stuff around the upstairs – leaving a lot in Aktobe, shipping home, and accompanying me at least to Almaty.  Then, the goodbyes started.  Golden Heart 3, English Club Halloween, Friday evening Shabbat, “Helloween” Party, MegaCenter Movie Night with volunteers.  After that, the vicinity of leaving seemed surreal.

My two years in Aktobe have been amazing and leaving was very difficult.  I cried, my friends cried – especially the last two days when it was a sunrise away.  But, as my mom  said when we spoke on the phone the day before I left, “It’s better when you can be sad about something.  Then you know there’s a connection with the people and meaning in the time you were there.”  On November 3, I threw a “Poka Perry Party”, gathering some of my closest friends together for a thank you and goodbye event.  A few of my friends planned the night – they did an amazing job.  The next day my organization organized an event with my colleagues and Volunteer Club: D.A.R. to send me off.

I was supposed to fly out the next day, November 5, at 10:30 in the morning.  At 6:30 AM, I received a call from Air Astana, my flight wouldn’t be leaving until at least 4:30 in the afternoon.  Then, another call adjusting the time to 3:30 PM.  I went back to sleep and checked the departure time a few hours later.  The flight was pushed back to 6:30 PM.  Thursday was difficult.  I was ready to leave Aktobe in the morning, but still not fully ready to leave my friends.  Having an entire extra day in the city added extra stress.  I wanted to see everyone again but I had already said goodbye.  The day dragged on.  I was ready to say goodbye at the airport, but not to go through it again in the office, at Black and Brown, at Mega.  A few friends stopped by my house, said hi, and really made my day.  We went to the airport around 5.  Five minutes after we get there, the arrival time is again adjusted – to 9:30 PM.  Friends are already coming to say goodbye.  We wait, see everyone, play Mafia.  The time is pushed back to 10:40 PM.  Air Astana gives us food vouchers.  Since I don’t live far from the airport, the five us of left go back to my house for dinner.  Around 9:30 PM, we head back to the airport, the plane is still scheduled “on time”, and I board.  I arrived in Almaty around 3 AM.

People say a lot of nice things when you’re leaving and emotions are on edge.  Tears flow as soon as you look at someone’s face who is also on the brink of tears.  It’s easy to think about all the good times and forget about the tough times, the times we argued, the chances we didn’t take, the programs that didn’t get off the ground, the opportunities that weren’t achieved.  I can learn from the difficult times, but there were so many more positive experiences that the whole two years is a bright spot in my life.

I told my friends, I’d be back.  It’s a nice statement and an easy way to assuage guilt when it feels like you’re abandoning people and a cause.  If you can say you’re coming back, then it’s not such a difficult departure.  It doesn’t have to be not true.  Life happens and you never know what situations will come up, but I fully plan to see my friends again, to see the many successes that my organization will find, and to do more than just remember the good times, but to keep the friendships and savor the experiences with those who made them together.  When I left, we were smiling, even if through tears.  I want to smile with everyone again.

To everyone who has followed my two years, thank you again for your thoughts, ideas, and support.

To everyone in Aktobe, thank you for changing my life, making me a better person, teaching me, and doing great things.  Talk soon.  

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment