So, Bhopal. The capital of Madhya Pradesh. A city with tons of history and significant recent growth. A city divide into two parts, the old city and the new city…which is really a PC way to say the Muslim city and the Hindu city.

You would think that, being a capital and all, Bhopal would have a good deal of things to do, restaurants to eat and, and so forth. Yeah, no. Rumor has it that there is a movie theatre somewhere here…I’ll believe it when I see it.

Nonetheless, Bhopal isn’t all that bad of a city. Sure, there isn’t really anything to do, but the people here seem to be a shade kinder than people in Pune, who seemingly take every possible opportunity to yell at non-Maharashtrans but really anyone stupid enough to ask a question or show even the slightest hint of hesitance or inconvenience. Thank goodness Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party is winning more votes to change all of that…right?


There are a few other advantages with Bhopal, too… Okay, one other advantage. Being a city with a 40% Muslim population, Bhopal has something that Pune does not (or is not easy to come by, at least): BEEF. That’s right, beef. My brethren here don’t seem to have the reservations as they do in Pune. Which means that I’ve gorged myself on seekh kebabs, shami kebabs, nihari, dho-pyas, buna, kadai, and various other beef-based tantalizers. My fellow meeties also had some kalegi (liver) and brain saalans (gravies), which was well-beyond my limit. Props to them for that carnivorous accomplishment.

And it’s CHEAP! I think three of us probably ate about 6 plates of beef-based foods with tandoori roti for Rs. 113…which is about $2.50. sanitation be damned! Cockroaches aside, it was a great experience.

And now, an ode:

Ode to Beef

Oh, beef!
You are simply succulent,
You don’t render my stomach turbulent,
You taste exquisite.

Oh, beef!
Thank God for the cow,
And also, the plow,
Homer was Mr. Plow.

Oh, beef!
You taste great on a leaf,
and I hear better on the reef,
but I wouldn’t know cuz of my beliefs

…frowny face…

Oh beef!
Too bad for your methane,
Which makes the sky rain,
From climate pollutan(ts)

Beef, I heart you so.
And will miss you when I go
Back to Pune. =(


"Hamare gar mai Papa ne Mummi ko bhot mara"
"In our house, Father hit Mother a lot"

"Is liye Aap ithar hai, naa?"
"That's why you're here, right?"


"Lehkin Mummi kidar hai?"
"But where's Mummi?"

"Woh to gar gahi!"
"She went home!"


Back on Sunday, November 8, I began volunteering with Maher Ashram. There are Maher centers throughout Pune, though the sizes of these centers greatly vary. I have been informed that, throughout Pune, there are approximately 21 Maher units that engage in a number of different activities. These activities run the gamut of services, ranging from providing housing to impoverished or orphaned children to rehabilitation programs for abusive husbands.

I had been introduced to Maher through an assignment I was working on for my fellowship. During the time, I was visiting a private English medium school known as Gyanankur so as to get better acclimated with the Indian education system and examine the acquisition of English language skills in a classroom environment.

While at the school, I ended up developing a relatively good working relationship with the teachers. Well enough, at least, for them to mention at least a couple of times that a fair number of the students attending the school, around 35, were Maher kids, coming from the children's home in Wagholi. Notably, this school visit had been in early October.

As the month continued on, I found myself increasingly bored on the weekends. Living in Balewadi, Pune is not a very exciting experience, as this developing gaon has neither the excitement of city life nor the charm of village life (as another fellow so eloquently pointed out once). Additionally, I found myself increasingly discontent, as I had no volunteer engagements at the time. As someone who staunchly believes in the power of civil society, civic engagement, and volunteerism, I was disappointed in myself for not being engaged. So, when I came across Maher's website while searching for volunteer opportunities in Pune, I jumped at the opportunity to set a meeting with Maher's founder, Sister Lucy, to begin volunteering with the Maher kids who attended Gyanankur.

I went into the meeting with a lot of hopes and expectations. Having worked a great deal with children in the past, I figured that I would be able to contribute a lot to the organization. And, going forth with the typical American mindset that I need to go into a situation with a plan of action and an agenda, I sought to have Sister Lucy clearly articulate what the kids' needs were so I could begin working to address those needs. I was disappointed, however, when Sister Lucy made no specific mention of areas in which I could help. She only mentioned that I should go there and simply speak and play with the students, as this would help improve their English skills and would best serve them.

At the time, I did not understand Sister Lucy's request. After all, I had a ton of experience ranging from camp counselor to tutor. Surely I could set up something, anything, for the children. Perhaps I could work on planning a summer camp for them? Maybe I could tutor them in English? Or, since I was studying innovative teaching techniques, perhaps I could teach the Maher staff how to better help the kids with their lessons using fun pedagogical and teaching techniques? Why would Sister Lucy ask me to engage in something so non-descript as, effectively, simply hanging out with the kids? Do the kids or staff have no tangible needs I can seek to address?

Shortly after arriving at Maher for my first day of volunteering, I realized the brilliance of Sister Lucy's request. The location I was going to volunteer in, as Sister Lucy had mentioned ahead of time, was not just a children's home; it was also a "mentally disturbed" women's shelter (their term, not mine) and a care facility for the neglected elderly. On account of this, there generally was not a dearth of volunteers. Volunteers come all the time, one having recently left just a few weeks prior to my arrival. These volunteers generally stay for a (relatively) long period of time and function in a particular role, such as teaching acting classes, working with the children on arts and crafts, and so forth.

Interestingly, these very acts of volunteering, while incredibly helpful, seemingly led the children to develop particular perspectives about the volunteers and their roles. Similarly, having been assigned a task, many of the volunteers would end up completing that task alone, perhaps to the neglect of some of the other needs of the kids and mentally disturbed women (the elderly were housed in a different building). After all, it would be difficult for a volunteer to spend individual time with each child while simultaneously attempting to conduct an activity for 35 children.

In not assigning me a particular role, Sister Lucy had effectively done two things. First, she allowed me the flexibility to serve in a role as I saw fit and develop my own volunteer schedule. Considering the large degree of travel I will have to do for work, this was absolutely imperative for me. Second, and perhaps more importantly and to the point, this extremely flexible assignment would allow the children to see me however THEY saw fit. I was not Uncle Samir, the teacher. Nor was I Uncle Samir, the counselor. I was simply Uncle Samir, and the kids could therefore assign whatever role to me they desire.

So, I became Uncle Samir, the guy who shows movies on his laptop. And Uncle Samir, the cricket player. Or Uncle Samir, the human climbing post (35 kids living under a single roof and sharing meager facilities tend to have a relatively loose concept of personal space…go figure). But, perhaps more relevant, I often became Uncle Samir, the confidant. Or Uncle Samir, the friend. Or Uncle Samir, the big brother.

It was an ingenious move by Sister Lucy, and one I have only recently come to appreciate. And I think it is the right role, as attestable by the large number of kids vying for my attention at any given time. I only wish there were more volunteers to serve a similar role so that the children would all receive the individual attention, smile, hug, and companion they so desperately desire, even if for only a week.

Unfortunately, it seems that most local Puneites rarely volunteer relative to foreigners, which is an incredible shame.


"Woh to gar gahi!"
"She went home!"

"Woh gar gahi? Kyu?"
"She went home? Why?"

No response.

"Koi bhaat nahi. Aap ko ithir mazaa aara hai, naa?"
No worries. You're having fun here, right?"

The conversation above occurred between a young Maher child and me. She approached me, out of the blue, and set this staggering matter-of-fact statement before me with a huge grin on her face, expressing this bombshell with a child-like innocence and lack of awareness of the implications of what she was saying. She came to Maher from an abusive household with her younger brother and mother; the mother has since returned to the father but sensibly (or is it selfishly?) left her children at Maher as she purportedly went to try to reconcile her relationship with her husband.

Though I personally doubt the mother's selflessness (though I totally believe her story as it is far too common), I honestly hope that things work out in the siblings' best interest in the end. It would be absolutely horrible if, during this situation with her parents, she ends up losing her innocence, happiness, and trust in what becomes a ferocious cycle of trust and disappointment.

I hope that, unlike one kid at the shelter, she doesn't become a child so conflicted about physical contact that she will jump onto your neck one minute but scream bloody murder when you lift her up the next. Or like another child, becomes so deprived of attention that she frequently acts out in her own selfish interests, often to the derision of her brothers and sisters at the Ashram. Or, like a third child, becomes so needful of adult interpersonal interactions that she constantly hangs onto visitors and becomes visibly distraught when they leave… or becomes even worse off, as far too many children throughout India know far too well.


"Koi bhaat nahi. Aap ko ithir mazaa aara hai, naa?"
No worries. You're having fun here, right?"

No response.


She runs a few steps toward the stairs, turns to flash me a huge grin inviting me to follow, and continues on her way to the playground. All is apparently out of mind for her, thankfully.

Not for me, though. My mind is reeling.

Catching Up Pt IV - In the Interim - September 8, 2009

Apologies for the long delay between updates. Clearly, I suck at consistency. I’ll try to be more on top of things henceforth, but, in my opinion, if I had the time and availability to consistently blogging on a daily basis, would I really be doing my utmost to explore, learn from, and enjoy Tajikistan and India?

Anyways, I am now in India after a brief stint back in the US for about 12-13 days. I spent most of my time meeting up with friends, getting pending action items taken care of, and fighting with my incredibly crappy health insurance provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia (BCBSGA). Apparently, on account of their shitty fax machine, poor communication, and unjustified assumptions, I will not be able to get a much needed MRI, as explicitly stated by my neurologist. Needless to say, I’ll be filing a complaint with the BBB. .. and I really hope Obama’s healthcare reform gains more traction and gets passed.

It has been about a week since I arrived in India. And, I must say, it has been quite the experience. Currently, my fellow AIF fellows and I are going through orientation, where we have spent a good deal of time learning about development, NGOs, and a myriad of different topics. It has been very informative and helpful, especially the site visits. As a group, I’d say that we mesh quite well, with a few quirks and hiccups here and there. Regardless, though, I’m generally getting the sense that everyone is comfortable with one-another and feel open to do as they see fit.

More on these site visits to come. And, so that my blog actually becomes more extrospective and introspective as opposed to purely a forum through which I can complain, I’m hoping to also blog about the following topics:
  1. Working in Pune while in development and not working on a grassroots level
  2. The juxtaposition of poverty alongside wealth in India
  3. Specific cultural and attitudinal differences in India (such as smiling at strangers)
  4. Bargaining and intimidation in Delhi
  5. Pan-handling in Delhi
Finally, I have a few half-completed entries that I wrote while in Tajikistan to post, which I will attempt to clean up and post while in Pune. Happy Reading!

Catching Up pt III - Tuesday Night Reflections - August 11, 2009

As I write this, I’m sitting in my room listening to some Death Cab. And it’s making me reflect on my time here in Khorog. And think about the level of contentment I have felt over the course of the past few weeks. And the amazing feeling I have felt knowing that I am part of such a strong, close-knit culture.

I have 2 more days here. I’m going to miss this place.

I’m going to miss the people: the people I work with, the people I interact with frequently, the people I live with, and even the random kids here saying “Hello!” to you, even though you’re a complete stranger. I’m going to miss the culture here: from the constant kindness to the devotion of the people to the honesty and trust mixed with the lack of (some) inhibitions. I’m going to miss waking up to the majestic beauty of mountains surrounding me on all four sides. I’m even going to miss some of the God-awful problems with this city, such as the random power outages and inconsistent business hours.

I’m going to miss belonging to a predominantly Ismaili city. Having grown up in the West, it is certainly a foreign experience. Nonetheless, I feel that there is an undeniable kinship formed between the people here due at least in part to a shared religion. It’s going to suck not being able to walk around and here a random song about the Aga Khan, or people sing his praise on account of the substantial aid and guidance he has provided GBAO over the 1.5 decades.

I’m REALLY going to miss my host family. I have never really been one to get too attached to people. And while I still don’t feel like I have grown too attached, I am certainly very fond of all of them. Granted, the family seems to be in a constant state of flux, but each member of this family has been very welcoming and endearing in his or her own way. There’s Khala Chaizon, who is perhaps one of the kindest and certainly has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know. There’s Nuzanin, who impresses me not only by her approachability but also by the steadfastness in her perspective and adoration for her siblings. There’s Gulya, who is perhaps one of the kindest, most approachable and honest people I have ever met. Then there’s Anzurat, who not only has an amazing personality and is incredibly maternal for an 11 year old, but also has modelesque features. She’s going to grow up to be an absolutely amazing person. There’s Tabasome, who is definitely the odd and random one of the group, but definitely the most spontaneous and energetic person in the family …AND she rules at video games! (Crazy discovery, I know.) There’s Maxim, Fitraat, and the Khola Sofiya, who have all either been great sources of entertainment (“Cheez toh dacco, pamidor?” and the sharobi) or great persons with whom to converse. More recently, there’s Moluda, who astounds me with her kindness at her age and certainly captivates people with her amazing smile. And finally, last but not least, there’s the baby of the family, Ahmadsho. By far, one of the biggest spoiled brats I have ever seen. But at the same time, one of the cutest and most endearing kids I know. He’s definitely the center of his family’s attention, and not for without good reason.

I am writing this just after 10pm…and I must say, I’m quite sad, indeed. I will miss everything about this place…

…Except for the random Tajik diamond smugglers who have yet to leave the guest house. Fuck ‘em! =/

Catching Up pt II - A damn good weekend - July 26, 2009

Yeah, it’s a bold title. But the weekend has been pretty damn awesome. I still have about 2-3 weeks left here, but I fear I’m going to miss Khorog…a lot. =/

This Saturday was “The Roof of the World Festival.” Effectively, it was a celebration of Central Asia’s heritage and diversity. The event took place in the Chor Bhog (spelling has likely been massacred), with a number of stands set up describing the diverse cultures, different NGO projects throughout Central Asia, and so forth. Throughout the day, different musical groups performed cultural music, including Pamiri, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Afghan, Pashtun, Tajik, and so forth. Though I missed most of this, the parts I caught were great.

The exhibition and musical performances part went on until about 1pm, give or take about 30 min. (Everything in Khorog starts relatively early, hence the early end time). So, in the interim, the ever-expanding group of South Asians I was with (consisting of four FOCUS interns, two GPISH IIS students, one STEP IIS student, an AKDN employee, and an ITREB employee), began our search for a place to eat. Unfortunately, the electricity was out all over Khorog…meaning none of the restaurants would be able to cook. As such, we decided to plop down in a place that made shwarma and ordered some condensed milk. We proceeded to cut a watermelon we had been carrying around, pull out a few fresh pieces of garda (REALLY big bread), and spent the next few hours eating some garda with condensed milk, watermelon, water, and candies.

‘Twas a good meal.

Amongst the group we were with was a guy who had come from Canada who had met and married a local Pamiri. Their story was fascinating, as he described how he had bumped into her multiple times while he was visiting the region for work-related reasons. As interesting as the story was, though, what was even more fascinating was the wife’s story of her experience preparing for a visit of the Aga Khan in October 2008 and the instances of perseverance and hilarity that ensued therein. (Pamiris are predominantly Nizari Ismaili Muslims, who see Aga Khan IV as their spiritual guide.) Her stories, combined with that of many others, show a degree of love and devotion that one scarcely hears.

For the sake of time, I will try my best to briefly convey two such stories I have heard while here:

Originally, the Aga Khan was suppose to visit both Dushanbe and Khorog, though for some reason, the first visit did not pan out. For the thousands of Pamiri Ismailis living in Khorog, this was obviously an incredible disappointment. But, seeing as how a fair number of them had relatives or immediate family in Khorog (and seeing as how Khorog is generally a VERY accommodating place anyways), many of those who were able to afford to headed to Khorog via rented vehicles. And so it goes that one Pamiri went to speak with her professor to inform her that she was “feeling sick” so that she could get an excused absence from class. Upon relaying the ailment to the professor, he calmly informed her that for some odd reason, many of his Pamiri students had fallen ill and not to worry, as he was sure that a trip to GBAO for a few days to see the Aga Khan would certainly make her feel better…

Another story that had been relayed to me described a series of coincidences and awe-inspiring moments. Upon finding out of the visit being canceled in Dushanbe, one couple I spoke with was particularly saddened; on account of their jobs, they would be unable to take the time out to visit Ishkashim, the location of the Darbar visit (close to Khorog). Luckily, though, both of them were able to take leave from their offices due to a streak of luck. Unluckily, they could not find a car to take them to Khorog (since the drive requires a 4x4 across the rocky terrain). This changed just a couple of days before the visit would happen in Khorog, and they were able to hitch a (overcrowded) ride with an acquaintance. After roughing out a bumpy and dangerous 16+ hour journey, they arrived in Khorog and immediately began heading to the site of the visit in Ishkashim (running on very little sleep). Seeing as how all of the vehicles in the village had already been booked, they began this considerable journey on foot. I should mention here that GBAO in October is no joke; being in the mountains, the area gets very cold, very fast at you can imagine the difficulty in trekking the terrain during this time. After travelling for multiple hours by foot, the couple, accompanied by extended family, reached the site of the visit at pitch-dark nightfall, where they would spend the next couple of hours waiting for the much anticipated visit. Taking turns sharing a single blanket amongst a large number of family members, they waited in anticipation throughout the night. Before long, they heard and saw a chopper crossing the horizon that was bringing the Aga Khan to the site. And as the chopper approached, it seemed to bring with it the sun, yawning awake as it parted the clouds and shooed away the darkness. With the sun shinning overhead and the cold slowly receding, the Pamiris waited in anticipation as the heli slowly came to land and the Aga Khan prepared to deliver his guidance after a far-too-long 10 years...

Forgiving my relatively poor retelling of those stories, there were many other such stories (running the gamut from emotional to hilarious) describing hardships to get to the location of the visit and the pursuant contentment that resulted from the visit (and the message/guidance associated with the visit). I hope to hear more of these stories in the coming weeks.

Sunday was perhaps one of the best days I had during this entire experience, but will be covered in a retroactive blog entry I’m current writing about a peaceful little village known as Yomg.

Catching Up - July 19, 2009

So, I have this horrible tendency of half-writing entries and never actually posting them. I'm working to improve, but until then, here are some of those entries. Italicized text indicates recently added text to old blog entries. Enjoy!

Sunday…it has certainly been a slow day, but will hopefully pick up soon.

So, there has recently been an influx of people into Khorog… on Saturday/Sunday, 3 researchers/interns from the IIS (Institute of Ismaili Studies) arrived in Khorog. If I recall correctly, 2 will be working with ITREC while one will be working with FOCUS. Additionally, on Thursday/Friday, 3 CIDA/AKFC Fellows arrived to work with FOCUS, MSDSP (I think), and IPD (Institute for Professional Development or something like that, which monitors/ensures quality teaching, I think). One more Fellow will most likely be arriving on Monday, and another one may come later on today. The three here so far are definitely very cool and fun to hang out with.

On Thursday and Friday, I was able to venture into the field (aka outside of Khorog). In particular, I got a chance to explore Shugnan beyond Khorog (Dehmiyona, Sizhd, and Kaklkhozobad) and Roshtkala (Sebzor, Parzuj, and Tirbar, in particular). The entire population of GBAO is somewhere between 200,000-300,000, with somewhere between 25,000-35,000 living in Khorog. Seeing as how GBAO is mountainous and the populations are very spread out, as you can probably imagine, most of GBAO’s population consists of subsistence farming and villages.

These field visits were certainly interesting and informative. Seeing as how the program I work with here in FOCUS deals with ensuring that schools are properly equipped to deal with earthquakes and the immediate results of seismic activity, the field visits consisted of visiting schools that were either being retrofitted or totally rebuilt in safer areas. It was quite interesting to see the negligence of previous construction projects as they pertain to local environmental hazards, and it was equally interesting to see some of the means by which these hazards can be avoided using FOCUS’s innovative means. It was also great to really get to see the village populations in the Pamirs and have an opportunity to not only have a glimpse (albeit somewhat superficial) of how they live but also dine with some of the local residents.

There were some particularly interesting components of these field visits that I want to highlight: A) the people in GBAO are incredibly nice and giving. Even if meeting you for the first time, they might invite you in to drink tea. Be forewarned, though, that this is rarely just tea…often, it is a HUGE, multicourse meal. This has been the case in every village I’ve been to thus far, which speaks to the kindness of the population. B) I have never in my life seen spring water quite as clear (or clean) as I have seen in GBAO. Granted, I haven’t been around many streams in my life, but that’s beside the point… Anyways, much of the stream water is glacial run-off, making it incredibly clean. Coupled with the natural filtering process that much of this water goes through while it passes over many small stones and pebbles, this stream water was certainly a very welcomed refreshment. (To give you an idea of how clean and clear it was, it took me multiple attempts to take a picture of the water, as it was so clear it wouldn’t show up very well on the camera…in fact, it is still quite difficult to see).

And finally, C) I now have a better sense of the relative nature of poverty. Poverty is a global problem that affects millions, indeed billions of people. But even then, poverty is relative. Perhaps I am making a pretty bold-faced assumption, but I would assume that many people in GBAO make less than the international poverty line. Even so, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the people here are suffering; they may not be living in the best conditions relative to the West, but they did seem quite content. I think the work of the AKDN certainly has played a big role in this, but I also think that their role was very strategic in nature; as I have seen, they don’t go into village in hopes of transforming the society to be more like a city in the West or reformulate cities based on some ideal operating model. Instead, they seek to improve the quality of life. The distinction here is important, as it does not assume that the people here inherently hate their condition and want to get out…instead, they try to improve their current situation, through, for example, better irrigation techniques, cleaner water, and the like.

Additionally, I have learned that poverty does not equate to depression. Though the people in GBAO may know that they do not have the same financial means as someone in America, for instance, they do not strike me as depressed or marginalized people. Poverty is also not always crying children and malnourished families. In fact, looking at poverty only through this narrow construct thoroughly restricts what may be considered poverty and marginalizes those who should otherwise be considered poor. I actually came across an interesting term for this depiction of extreme poverty from a friend of mine: poverty pornography. If you have a difficult time understanding what this term means, imagine one of those TV ads where an old to middle-aged man or woman comes on the screen showing crying kids, wasted babies, and extremely sick parents. They then solicit donations, usually through sponsorship for a kid.

These ads, while likely impactful as a means by which to raise money, are effectively a form of exploitation that seek out peripheral, emotive appeals to individuals in an attempt to pry funds out of the hands of well-meaning Westerners. And this exploitation is not restricted to just one or two organizations that engage in this poverty pornography; I see a very significant number of organizations doing this. In my opinion, this is likely why many people have such a singular image of poverty as conforming to this narrow spectrum of possibilities as seen through a single lens. In fact, poverty is much more than just the extreme (or at least “popular”) fringes. After seeing this hands-on, I have a much greater level of respect for AKDN and other NGOs who refrain from this exploitation.

Regrettably, though, I think that I have fallen into this exploitative trap through some of the volunteer ventures I have engaged in. My goal is now to seek out means by which to rectify the situation. I hope that, if nothing else, I can keep with me the knowledge that poverty is subjective, relative, multifaceted and multi-faced, and use this knowledge when engaging in further professional and volunteer engagements.

My 100 roommates

Note: post written on Wednesday, July 15

I must say, a lot has certainly happened in the last few days. To begin, Sunday we visited a local camp for Khorog kids being conducted by ITREC (Ismaili Tariqah Religious Education Committee). There was a 2 hour FOCUS module being presented to the kids, which is why we attended. I must say, it was quite different from what I had expected. Though I knew that the quality of the camp would be at least moderately good, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by both the conduct at camp (of participants and counselors alike) and the quality of the camp. The camp was for youth in 9th grade and higher (though there did seem to be some kids quite a bit younger than this as well), and apparently is very selective with very high demand. Interestingly, all of the counselors are in college, and had at least a basic understanding of English (with at least a couple studying English).

After watching the sessions being implemented, it was sports time for the participants…and us, apparently. After running a few laps and stretching as a group, the participants split up to play the sports or games they wanted, be it soccer (yes, I call it soccer), basketball, table tennis, volleyball, chess, checkers, and a host of other games/sports. I was absolutely floored by the skill level of these kids in their respective sports. The skill level of the soccer players was incredibly high, and the volleyball players certainly had the fundamentals down. (In fact, I recall someone telling me that a volleyball team from GBAO was the national volleyball champion.) It was quite amazing to see kids actually able to set, bump, and almost spike. The basketball players, quite frankly, weren’t very impressive, but taking into consideration the general expertise and interest in the other sports, I’ll let this slide. I should mention that I’m referring to the skill level of both girls and boys, particularly in volleyball.

And then, night fell and the day took an interesting turn. One problem I have had but have thus far not blogged about has been my living accommodation. Some of the issues I had encountered while living with my hosts were a) no hot water, b) no shower, c) no water at random times throughout the day, and d) very unsanitary conditions in the kitchen (in the sense that there was a tree that had perhaps 40-50 flies on a plant in the kitchen). I was able to cope with these problems, though, as I just chalked it up as part of the experience. There was one, problem, however, that I was having a very difficult time coping with: the flea infestation in my room (which then got into my work clothes as well). This was no small infestation…I had (and still have) at least 75 flea bites all over my body. At first, I thought they were mosquito bites, but soon learned otherwise. Anyways, long story short, this problem was deemed (rightfully so) “unacceptable,” and I was moved into a hotel for a night (Delhi Darbar).

Monday, I moved in with my new host family. Whereas my previous host family lived in a considerably small, cramped apartment (or apartment-esque accommodations) and didn’t speak any English (and consisted of a lady and her grandmother), my new host family lived in a much larger house with some members understanding a little English and one who is quite fluent (having learned English in the Aga Khan Lycee, Khorog). This family is larger too, with three sisters (ages 20, 16, and 11), a brother (age 6), a mother, and a host of relatives and neighbors always coming and going. The house is quite centrally located very close to the local market and park, and as you can imagine, is quite lively with that many people coming and going. (The father, in case you’re curious, works in Moscow, which is quite common for families living in Tajikistan). Thus far, my experience with the family has been great, as we’ve had some pretty good conversations and they have taken me to explore the local park (Chor Bagh) on my time off of work. Though I’m sad to have left my previous accommodations (without having given ample warning, I might add), I’m very excited to see how these new accommodations work out in the long run.

July 11!

Note: post written on July 11/12

Ahh, July 11…it has, as expected, been a great day.

At slightly after 10am, we began our trek toward a very large, open stadium/field. It was here that much of the city had gathered to watch the festivities of the day. This part of the day was relatively uneventful, as there seemed to be speeches going on of a religious/appreciative nature. Since I am not fluent in Shugni (the local language in Khorog) and the audience was massive, this registered quite low on the “things that have wowed me” scale.

However, as we were walking around, we were unexpectedly asked that we follow a volunteer, who proceeded to take us to a show that was being put on for guests and prominent individuals in Khorog (religious heads, I think). The show consisted of a number of kids (predominantly girls) backed by men playing musical instruments all singing Maanqabats, or religious songs about Hazar Imam (or for those of you non-Ismailis out there, the Aga Khan IV, the worldwide spiritual leader of the Nizari Ismaili Muslims; this July 11 marked his 52nd year as spiritual leader of the Ismaili community). The show was great! Not only did the girls have superb voices, but the music (or the parts of it that one of our hosts translated) was very inspired. I think between us four interns, we probably have a recording of most of the songs.

Culture in Khorog (and indeed throughout Gorno-Badakhshan, or so I have been told) deems that, those families with the means to do so, invite people into their houses to eat during lunch time. As such, after the show, the local road that had held sponsored the large-scale festivities. Not only did this mean that there were tons of people at the house where we ate, but it also meant that there was a TON of food. In high spirits, we all ate, and the locals attempted to communicate with us as best as possible.

After eating and walking around for a while, we eventually made our way back home. After quickly changing, I headed off to a wedding! Apparently, someone I barely know (as in I met once on a minibus) but was a part of the program I work with was getting married. As such, I was invited to join in on the festivities. The first thing I noticed was definitely the sheer amount of food. The table was literally covered with appetizers ranging from sweets to salads (Tajik-style) and everything in between. This was followed by the main course, which was served quite a bit later, consisting of a soup dish. Just like weddings in a good deal of other cultures, people came up and said positive things about the married couple, danced, and ate. And, somewhat like an Indian wedding, the bride and groom were escorted in by a lady playing a drum and people dancing. All in all, a fair deal of similarities.

There were some interesting things I wanted to point out, though. First, this July 11 marked the first use of the Ismaili Muslim Nikkah ceremony (religious marriage rites) in GBAO. Second, apparently there are restrictions to weddings in Khorog. The couple can only invite around 300 people, cook a certain amount of food, and the wedding can only last for 3 hours. After being here for some time, the hyper-control and protectiveness of the government even as it pertains to weddings doesn’t surprise me as much anymore. Finally, I had to give a speech at the wedding! Keep in mind that I didn’t (and still don’t) know the bride or groom very well…or at all. Couple with the fact that I didn’t know the cultural norms, I ended up making a pretty pathetic, short, improvised speech. After stuttering over a few well-wishes and a quick translation by a work colleague, and after rebuffing attempts to make me sing to the crowd (apparently they like to torture interns at weddings…side note, they love Bollywood here), I danced for a few minutes with the other attendees and then headed home. All in all, a great day and a great experience.

Road Trip! Dushanbe to Khorog

Note: Entry written on Juy 8 and uploaded on July 10. I will hopefully write about Istanbul Days 2 & 3 and Dushanbe in the near future.

On Tuesday, July 7, we departed our respective guesthouses/apartments and headed off to the airport. The plan had been to catch a helicopter from Dushanbe to Khorog, which would take about 1.5-2 hours. (Un)fortunately, “this is Tajikistan”; plans change.

Seeing as how we were the only 4 people headed to Khorog and that there would not be anyone heading back to Dushanbe from Khorog, we were unable to take the helicopter. Though the rationale behind this had not been explained, I would assume it is on account of the financial impact that stems from only flying 4 people via helicopter to Khorog and not flying anyone for the return to Dushanbe. Assuming this was the rationale, though an inconvenience, I totally can understand why that decision had been made.

So, following this decision, we began our 2 day, 11-18 hour trip to Khorog with our driver, who we lovingly referred to as “Maki” (Mister). Now, I should mention that, as opposed to the previous few days, Dushanbe on Tuesday was HOT! Whereas the weather had apparently been unusually mild for our first few days, these days seemingly better reflected the normal weather in Tajikistan. Coupled with no AC, the beginning part of the trip was, well, torturous.

At first, I think all of us interns were quite afraid. Afterall, we were traveling on some very iffy roads. However, a couple of hours into the trip, this all changed…drastically. Our fear subsided and our appreciation of Tajikistan grew. I must say, though I have not traveled extensively and therefore have no relative comparison, the landscape of Tajikistan is BEAUTIFUL! In the course of a single trip, we went from flat land with wide, paved, two-way roads to incredibly tall mountains with gravel or dirt roads. We passed by rivers and streams and cities situated between it all. We had to screech to a halt to allow chickens to cross the road (apparently they really do just want to get to the other side) and often had to do the same for sheep, lambs, donkeys, and cows. We (unintentionally) raced with random dogs sitting beside the road and (intentionally) prodded a donkey with our vehicle as its perhaps 8 year old master sadly frowned and shrieked (okay, I’ll admit this was kind of mean, but it was the driver’s action…). We joined the locals in drinking mountain waters but also saw numerous people drinking and washing up in gutter and run-off water from rain. Finally, we got caught in and drove through a herd of hundreds of sheep, with a young shepherd helping us maneuver our way out, and drove beside the Pyanj River for many miles, providing us with an extensive view of Afghan-Badakhshan. So in retrospect, I totally think driving to Khorog has proven to be the better option.

I wanted to take a minute to mention one particular component of our trip, which is our overnight stay at Darwuz. On our way to Khorog, we ended up spending a night at the MSDSP (Mountain Societies Development Support Programme) Guesthouse. Similar to Urdu and Hindi, Darwuz (darwaza) means very large door, or so we had been instructed in Dushanbe. The name was certainly fitting. I must say, the location of the guesthouse and Darwuz overall was staggering. Situated between mountains on all four sides with the freshest roses I have ever seen growing next to the house, Darwuz is certainly a beautiful and unique sight to wake up to. Indeed, it was perhaps the most beautiful stop on the way to Khorog. The owner of the guesthouse, Mirov Rahmatikhudo, is an incredibly kind fellow with great stories. Before we left for Khorog, he gave us Golden Jubilee pins (and also gave the female interns roses plucked from his rosebush) and we, in turn, gave him a Golden Jubilee Tasbih. So, if by chance you happen to find yourself in Darwuz (in Tajikistan, not Afghanistan), I strongly suggest you stay at the MSDSP guesthouse and lose yourself in the beauty of Tajikistan.

Istanbul Day 1

Note: entry written on July 2 uploaded July 6

So, it has been a while since I last updated. I had wanted to make one last journal entry before departing from Atlanta, but alas, that was unfortunately not the case.

Anyways, I’m currently in Istanbul! When figuring out the plane ticket situation, I figured out that it would actually be cheaper to fly a few days earlier and chill in Istanbul…not to mention more interesting. In order to secure the cheapest flight, I booked a ticket with a number of connections making my route before returning to Atlanta as follows: Atlanta to Philadelphia to Paris to Istanbul with Delta / Air France (code share) and Istanbul to Dushanbe with Turkish Airlines.

I will actually be heading to the airport in a few hours to catch a flight to Dushanbe, followed by a helicopter ride to Khorog in a few days. I’ve been in Istanbul for 3 days now, though only 1 has been a full day.

The arrival on the first day was pretty eventful in itself. I departed Atlanta on Sunday at 3pm (Atlanta), and arrived in Istanbul on Monday evening (on account of time zone changes). All of my flights were either delayed or arrived to the destination city late. I learned a couple of things from this experience: a) apparently, Philly flights rarely depart on time as they tend to spend a significant amount of time waiting in line on the runway and b) security check-in at Paris’s CDG airport SUCKS. A bunch of us had flown from Philly to Paris and would have missed our flights had one particularly irate Turk not given a CDG employee a piece of his mind. Even then, by the time I arrived to the gate (after literally running to the gate on account of still having to spend 45 minutes in the security check-in’s business/elite line), I was informed that I would not be able to board, even though someone who had been immediately in front of me in line had literally just passed flight check-in and was maybe 10 steps in front of me. After a few exasperated choice words and a 5 second phone call by an Air France employee presumably to the plane’s hull, I was boarding the plane well on my way to Istanbul. Or so I thought until take-off was delayed about 45 minutes.

Of course, no frustrating travel experience would be complete without lost baggage. As much as this sucked, though, what was even worse was that my Canadian travel buddy and fellow FOCUS intern’s (Safiyya’s) plane was being rerouted to the other Istanbul airport on the Asian side of Istanbul. I learned soon after that, while circling the skies waiting for a runway to open up, the plane was running out of fuel and therefore had gone to the other airport to refuel before heading back to Ataturk airport. I can’t imagine how annoying that must have been for her.

Anyways, after converting money, reporting my missing bags (which apparently have just made it to Istanbul from Paris, btw), and securing transportation to my hotel (which was also late), I was successfully able to check into my hotel. The hotel surpassed my expectations, hands down. Not by any means in its size, mind you, but more so in the hospitality of the staff and the location of the hotel relative the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet Square. So, if you’re ever in Istanbul, definitely stay at Erguvan Hotel.

After resting up for a few hours (I can’t ever seem to sleep on a plane; when trying to sleep on a flight, my head bobs more than a Desi acknowledging a comment), Safiyya and I joined up and visited a restaurant called Doy Doy. Sitting there on Doy Doy’s terrace eating an adana kebob with a beautiful view of the majestic Blue Mosque as the Azaan serenely beckons its listeners to prayer has definitely been a highlight of the trip thus far, made all that much better by the great conversation and amazing meal.