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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Camping, Take One

This past weekend we went camping.  I've wanted to go camping for some time, but first children were sick, then Brandon had weekend commitments for work, and then suddenly it was July.  A month seems a really long time until you only have four weekends before it's all over.  Brandon had last Friday off for Independence Day, so we decided to head up into the mountains and see how well taking five children into complete wilderness to sleep somewhere other than their own beds would work.  And also, using the bathroom in the woods.  

I've heard of three campgrounds in Tajikistan, but all of them are on the other side of the Tunnel of Death, which is currently closed to make the potholes only small enough for Ticos instead of full sized cars to get lost in.  I was told by a man who has visited over 150 countries that the Anzob tunnel is the worst tunnel he's ever been through in the entire world.  I'm proud to live in a country of superlatives.

So all with all campgrounds currently inaccessible, we decided to just find somewhere flat enough for our massively large eight-man (room for one more!) tent, secluded enough to not draw the passing stares of every villager in the district, and close to a driveable road.  There ain't no way we're hauling housing, food, clothes and bedding for seven people any further than 100 yards from our car.  Sophia and I got into a discussion about why we don't backpack to camping places.  Not only are the children pretty lousy at hauling stuff (they probably max out at fifteen pounds), but super lightweight backpacking gear for seven people gets pretty expensive pretty fast.  Plus, I've not found any ultra-lightweight backpacking porta cribs yet.  I'll have to talk to Graco about that.

So I've been keeping my eye out for a likely spot ever since we started hiking, and you'll be very shocked to find out that there aren't very many that fit the bill.  Land is at a premium here, so any flat spot either has a house or a field on it.  If there's somewhere particularly nice, someone has already claimed it.  And driveable roads only lead to villages, which are built wherever flat, pleasant spots happen to appear in the terrain.  Good spots are so rare, in fact, that so far I've only found one.  But this one was pretty nice.  It had everything we were looking for, and a bonus fire ring all ready for our use, complete with a liberal scattering of bone dry branches, ready for a marshmallow roasting fire.

Everyone had a great time cooking their dinner on sticks (good news - Tajikistan has a good hot dog import arrangement with Canada.  Not kidding) and eating outside in the lovely mountain outdoors.  My favorite part was doing the dishes - just throw them into the fire.  

Eleanor spent the entire trip confined to her pack'n play.  I watched her when Brandon lit the fire, completely absorbed with those pretty, dancing things made of light.  Whoever invented play pens was a genius.

Everyone slept as well as you can sleep when you go to bed too late, have a completely full moon flooding your tent, and the sun rises at 5 am.  Which is to say, not bad for camping.  No one had to find the woods in the middle of the night and only Joseph woke up crying because he couldn't find his blanket.  

We had intended to stay for two nights, but by morning Brandon's rumbling insides had turned into a more pressing problem.  So after breakfasting on zucchini bread and hot chocolate, we packed up and headed back to civilization and indoor plumbing.  As we pulled out, the children were already planning for the next time we'd get to sleep in the woods.  And surprisingly, I was equally excited.  Until next time.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Living at a hardship post

Dushanbe is at 30% hardship differential post.  In the Foreign Service, some posts are declared 'hardship' (think most places outside Western Europe) and then given a percentage of how 'hardship' the post is.  Theoretically, the higher the percentage, the harder the post, although there is always a lot of room for debate over which hardship is harder - high crime vs. lack of medical care vs. difficulty of travel - and I'm glad that I am not tasked with assigning those numbers.

Our two previous posts - Baku and Cairo - were also hardship posts, twenty and ten percent, respectively.  There are very few accompanied posts that are higher than thirty percent, so we're probably going to stop chasing a higher differential after Tajikistan.  Of the six years we've been employed with State, we've spent the last four and a half in hardship posts, almost as long as I spent in college, and are firmly committed to three more years at a hardship post.

And so, my life for the foreseeable future is living in places that are definitely not America.  They're not even Europe, even Eastern Europe.  And I'm fine with that.  

Everyone has different things they're looking for in a place they live.  When I was assigned housing the first day of my study abroad in Vienna, I was crestfallen with my assignment to a house in the suburbs.  I had spent my whole life in the suburbs and wanted to be where the action was, living in the city where everything was close at hand.  I wanted that so desperately that I convinced another girl, one who didn't care so much about city life, to switch with me.  This would be the only chance I had to live it up the city life before I retired to a middle class existence in the suburbs.  

Now that I have five children and have spent much more time living in the city than I ever thought would be my lot in life, I have long, fanciful, wistful dreams of that house in the suburbs surrounded by a lush green lawn and lots of parking for my minivan.  But that's because I have five kids and my taste for outside entertainment has waned.  It's hard to get excited about opera and ballet when all you want to do in the evening is spend some time with your spouse and sleep.  I still enjoy opera and ballet, but they aren't a crucial part of my happiness anymore.  Maybe I've grown dull or lost my taste for the fine things in life or realized that happiness is a simpler affair than it used to be, but whatever it is, that's how I am these days.

And so living in places like Vienna or London or Paris have no appeal for me.  I spend most of my day, no matter where I live, taking care of my family.  When school is finished, nobody in my family wants to go visit a museum, they want to go to the park or the pool.  And all of the delicious French food in the world still can't balance out the days we would spend together, cramped in a shoe box apartment (furnished at our own expense with Ikea), cleaning it ourselves after we finished spending all morning in the same room having too much closeness for anyone's own good.

I like having my very own courtyard to park my big, black SUV that I can drive wherever I want and park wherever I want (did I ever tell you how easy it is to park here?  It's almost as good as real live parking lots).  I love unloading my groceries and just walking them into the house.  I adore telling my children to get in the car, and they just walk out the door and get in the car.  We can be as loud as we like because nobody's above or below or beside to hear the ruckus.  We have enough space that everyone can be in a separate room with one to spare if they get bored.  Our school room has enough space for two room-sized rugs, a treadmill, a TV area (with another rug, couch and chairs), two kitchen tables, and enough extra space for Joseph to drive his Little Tykes cars in laps around the whole thing.  And that's just one floor of our house.

Sure, the house has styrofoam molding and conduits running across all of the walls and no screens in the windows (and they have very very large hornets here) and bars in front of the windows, but after a few weeks those things fade into the background.  The driving has its own strange logic, and you hardly notice the crumbling infastructure or broken pipes sticking out of sidewalks.  Because life, for me, is the same no matter where I live - I feed people, school people, keep the house clean, and break up fights.  So why do it in a shoebox in London when Brandon can earn 40% more for doing it in Dushanbe?  I have made my peace with living in places where nothing is ever quite square and nobody can cure concrete properly ever.


Every now and then a friend posts pictures of their vacation to somewhere that has things like green grass, butter smooth pavement, and order.  And then I remember that there are places in the world where central air conditioning exists and generators aren't necessary and molding is made out of wood.  Then the longing comes back.  I want to be in a place like that, where everything works like it's supposed to, and public spaces are well cared for and neighborhoods exists with trees and lawns and sidewalks.  I want a house with floors that are level and all of the light switches turn a light on or off and the toilet seat stays on for years without any fiddling.  I want to be somewhere that works.  

I talk myself back from that dangerous place, the one where order is all around me with no crooked curbs and holey sidewalks, the place that has to wait patiently for decades until I can come to it.  I am a child of America and I will never stop yearning for order and beauty.  But, as in everything in life, choices have to be made and I've made mine.  And so I stuff that longing back into the corner of my mind where it hides, waiting to catch me unsuspecting, and go back to my life of crooked lights, rusting playgrounds, and lawless driving.  It's okay, it's okay.  Life is not about where you live, it's about how you live, and who you live it with.  All of these things are props to the play, just passing backgrounds.  You have your family.  You have your health.  You have plenty of food and a comfortable family.  You are rich.  

But still, I miss it those green lawns and beautiful parks and order.  It's okay, though.  Because one day, I'll go back and it will be for good.  I won't ever leave and eventually the thought of a place where sidewalks happen only occasionally will seem like a distant memory.  I will have a house that always stays the same temperature and the doors all shut perfectly every time.  Lane markers will be ubiquitous and all roads will be wide enough for two cars to pass each other without even coming close.  Order will be so normal I won't even notice it.  One day.  Whenever that day will be.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Strangers No More

Last Saturday night Brandon and I took a trip to the grocery store.  We had to pick up a few things for dinner the next day, along with staples like dried fruit, nuts, sweetened condensed milk and butter.  I never know when I'm going to the store next, so whenever I go I pick up at least four or five frozen saran wrapped logs of butter.  Because you never want to run out of butter.  I could probably get along without flour or eggs or maybe even milk, but butter is an essential.

While cruising the aisled of Poitacht at eight o'clock on a Saturday night, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" came on the tinny grocery store speakers.  I don't know why foreign grocery stores love American music, but it's been ubiquitous in every country we've lived in.  One grocery store in Cairo was having sound system problems and so every song was sung by Alvin and the Chipmunks.  I almost lost it when the Macarena came on.

Brandon and I danced past the soap and deodorant and continued to the spice aisle.  As we exclaimed over the Iranian dates - the best dates I've ever had are from Iran - a man came up to us.  "Excuse me," he asked in an American accent that matched his boots, hiking shirt, and backpack, "you look like you know what you're doing.  Do you know where the salt is?"

We showed him the salt and then fell into conversation.  Tajikistan is such a small, out-of-the way country that stumbling across another American is always fascinating.  Last Saturday we were driving back from a hike and saw a man on a bicycle loaded with panniers, wearing a Smith t-shirt.  He was so American, I wanted to stop and ask him how many countries he's been through in his cycling through Central Asia journey.  Because who else does such a crazy thing?  Once when Brandon and I were out shopping I saw several college-age girls dressed as locals enjoying ice cream cones, but just as American as me.  What are you doing here, I wanted to ask.  Because who comes to Tajikistan?

So we chatted with our fellow American and after awhile it was past nine o'clock and the store was looking like it might want to close.  After we parted ways, I sent Brandon chasing after our new friend to invite him for dinner.  He was traveling alone and trying to cook food in a practically unfurnished apartment, so I thought he might enjoyed something other than salt-less soba noodles for the next three days.  He accepted and I went home wondering what had possessed me to invite a complete stranger - one who had never been married and never had children - over to enjoy a family dinner with all five of our children.  Culture shock in Tajikistan is nothing compared to culture shock at our house.

When we got home, I realized we didn't even know his name.

Brandon and I figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that he would show up - after all who goes to dinner at the house of a random stranger that you met the night before in the spice aisle - but at 3:15, he was at our gate and ready for dinner.  We had warned the children that our dinner guest - by this time we had looked at his website and found out his name - wasn't here to watch the antics children and listen to an endless list of impossible what if questions.  Everyone sat (mostly) quietly at the table and excused themselves to play while the adults talked.

Martin had traveled to over 150 countries, so we swapped stories about traveling and driving and eating in foreign countries.  He told us of spending several days in a Georgian hospital after being beaten badly.  We told him about being evacuated from Cairo during the Arab spring.  He talked about spending four years in India growing up and how his family had never been the family anyone would have wanted.  We talked about religion and eternity.  He talked about a Great Spirit, or God, or Someone or Something that filled the world.  We both talked about existence and what we're doing here and what we can do to make our piece of the world better and more beautiful.  He watched the children play and wrestle and chase each other around the room as we tried to get them to be quiet.  We finished dinner, cleared the table, ate dessert, and sat.  Finally around nine, we said goodbye.

We exchanged contact information, and promised to help if anything was ever needed, and then returned to our normal lives.

If we had passed each other in the spice aisle of Safeway in Falls Church, nobody would have ever said a word to each other.  America is filled with Americans and nobody ever looks twice at each other, or if they do, it's surreptitiously.  We all go about our lives and our business encased in the bubble of our own existence and only let people in under the right circumstances.  Because there are so many to choose from, we have to be choosy.

But in Tajikistan, all Americans are like extended family.  We smile at each other on the street, make friends at parties, and reminisce about the things we miss most - Krispy Kreme doughnuts or large parking lots or neighborhoods with lawns and trees.  Because we are adrift in a sea of people so unlike ourselves, we cling to any accent that reminds us of home and familiarity.  It doesn't matter if we aren't the same religion or political affiliation or race or class.  We're American and so we already have more in common than with 99 out of 100 faces we pass on the street here.

And so, when we come across someone who is far from home and without family, we take him in to ours.  I don't know if we'll ever meet with Martin again, at least in this life, but he will always be part of our story.  One Sunday in late spring we will have always shared sushi and soba noodle soup, mulberry cobbler and ice cream, six hours of food and friendship and pondering on the universe.  And we will have one more person gathered into our thoughts and hearts, all because of the spice aisle on a summer Saturday evening.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Brandon Week

This week we got to celebrate Brandon's birthday and Father's Day.  I'm never quite sure how Brandon feels about back to back celebrations, but I'd be miffed about not getting to spread the joy over a little more time.  Being Brandon, however, he doesn't mind.

Brandon, of course, had to work on his birthday.  Every year I pester him about taking his birthday off and every year he replies that real adults still have responsibilities even if it's their birthday.  I'm just fine with not being a real adult on my birthday and always try to shuck as many responsibilities as possible.  But I am morally inferior to Brandon.  So.

The children and I started his morning off with a surprise tasty breakfast, overnight baked french toast with raspberries and whipped cream.  The girls had secretly made signs, cards, and a crown for him.  That afternoon I left with children with Zarifa and surprised Brandon with lunch.  We had a great time and I returned him to the embassy within the 90 minute time allotted to us by his boss.

I had planned a tasty birthday dinner - pad thai and spring rolls with raspberry pavlovas - but it had to be postponed due to a last-minute command performance at a reception.  So instead the children and came to the embassy for swimming and had dinner al fresco next to the pool.

For Brandon's birthday Saturday we had a picnic.  We hiked to a nice spot next to a small river and laid out our blanket under the sycamore trees.  After eating, Brandon and I relaxed while the children waded in the river. Several got soaked, as they always do, but everyone dried out in the end.

Father's Day was low-key, at Brandon's request.  He slept in this morning while I fried up doughnuts and Edwin scrambled eggs for breakfast.  We had chicken pot pie, made on Friday, for dinner.  This year I didn't even attempt to buy presents; Brandon has never cared much about things, so I didn't waste our money on something he really wouldn't care about.  We all just enjoyed each other's company and enjoyed a quiet Sunday.  Well, quiet until the end when Joseph decided to throw up a few times just for fun (mild concussion?  Food poisoning?).

The way I feel about Brandon is not something that I can adequately put into words.  I'm not skilled enough to express what I feel and anything less would only come across as trite.  But just in case the internet, or future posterity, is wondering, I'm pretty fond of him.  He treats me much better than I deserve (well, on my bad days) and loves his children more than they'll understand until they get to have children of their own.  None of us have any doubt about his priorities - if he could get paid to spend all day with us, he would.  He goes to work every day so that we can have a nice house to live in, plenty of food to eat, and time to sit by the pool while he watches from an office, working while we play.  He gives up the last piece of cake, his private time, and his choice in movies just so the rest of us can have what we want.  He stays up late listening to me talking about nothing, and reads the children a story every night, some nights before he even gets his own dinner.  We all know that we are the most important things in his world.  And he is the most important in ours.  We love you, Brandon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Perfect Family Trip

I am deep in the throes of planning for our R&R this summer.   I love planning just about as much as Brandon hates it, so this is one of my favorite times of year.  The second we start to kick around ideas about trips I can hardly finish what I'm doing before I bury myself in website after website of seemingly infinite possibilities, all wonderfully fun and terribly exciting and something different than my everyday life.

This year Brandon's brother is getting married and so instead of visiting his family in Missouri, we're all meeting up in Utah to party and celebrate a new member of the family voluntarily joining the madness.  Usually we spend all three weeks of our R&R playing nomad as we try and squeeze in as much family is possible, but this year we actually have some extra time on our hands.  Theoretically we could just come home earlier, but spending anything less than three weeks in the U.S. is just too soon to face jet lag again.

So Brandon and I decided to have a little family trip - just the seven of us.  Of course that's pretty much every single day of our life, just the seven of us cozying up to each other and basking in the mutual pleasure of our company, but we decided to take the show on the road and do that somewhere different.  Somewhere where we could pay money to enjoy each other's company for days on end.

My first idea was to take everyone down to Zions National Park in Southern Utah.  Because, if I haven't told you yet, I like hiking.  And Zions is a pretty beautiful place to hike.  I looked at cabins and resorts and hotels and finally landed on a camp/resort on the edge of the national park.  It looked perfect.  There was a pool and a communal campfires and horseback riding and breakfast was included.  What else is needed for a family vacation?

When I brought the idea to Brandon for approval, he pointed out one problem: the children hate hiking.  Why would we spend a lot of money and drive hours to go somewhere that was just more of what we do every Saturday in Tajikistan?  I feebly tried to point out that it was hiking somewhere different and there would be marshmallow roasting before I gave in and realized that maybe I was confusing wishing with reality.

I moved onto the next idea.  What about a cabin on a lake?  It would be great.  We could be all alone (because we really don't get much of that) and out in the woods and there'd be water.  Who doesn't like a house by the water?  Brandon agreed that a cabin would be wonderfully scenic, but not much other than scenic.  Any lake in Utah is cold and so the children would jump in, yelp, hop back out, and then demand to know what our plans were for the rest of the day.  Brandon didn't think that 'Mom reading a book for the entire day' counted as realistic plans for a whole week.

Then I had a flash of genius.  Why not take a cruise?  After a bit of Googling, I found a boat that left LA (only a nine hour drive from Provo), sailed around Mexico for four days, and got us back in time to hop an international flight.  It would be great.  Brandon and I could drop the children off at the kid's club and we could sit around on deck chairs enjoying sitting around on deck chairs.  All of the food was included, there would be pools, and we'd have that great time that all of those Carnival ads promised us.

I didn't even have to talk to Brandon before I knew that this one wasn't going to work out.  If the object of a family trip is to relax, taking five children on a boat with 2,500 other people where all of those 2,500 people are also trying to relax - something that does not include seeing/hearing/smelling/knowing of my five children - cruising is probably the worst idea possible.  I didn't even want to think about trying to feed them all while sitting at a table with complete strangers.

So in the end I was forced to see reason.  Brandon helpfully reminded me of my own wisdom about vacations.  Of the three types - family vacation (taking family and seeing family), family trip (taking family and not seeing family), and getaways (no family involved at all) - only the the third involves relaxation.  Any misguided, wishful attempt to find a scenario that 1. entertained the children and 2. involved no stress would be beating my head against a wall.  There's no escaping the body count and age range of five children.  Those two things combined are an inevitable recipe for high stress situations.  Attempting to escape that reality is about as useful as trying to escape physics.

And so we came up with the only reasonable solution.  For our family trip this year, we will be making a tour of all the Utah county pool centers.  There are enough that we can visit a new one each day and see this particular municipality's combination of splash pad/water slides/lazy river/zero entry play area.  It will be very thrilling.

Next year, I'm going to Thailand.  Alone.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Lure of Free Fruit

When I was growing up, I hated picking blackberries.  My mother loves nothing better than blackberry pie in January - she makes pies in the summer and freezes them whole - but blackberries don't grow in January.  So that means in July, the hottest, muggiest month of the year, blackberries have to be picked.  On the dreaded Blackberry Picking Day, always around Independence Day, my mother would roust us out of bed much, much too early - like six o'clock - to put on long sleeved shirts and pants and go to whatever cow pasture she had found that had brambles and an owner willing to let us strip those brambles.

After fifteen or twenty minutes we would begin the whine, "When are we going home?  I'm so hot!  Haven't we picked enough yet?"  My mom would resolutely ignore us and keep filling her bucket, one blackberry at a time, perhaps thinking of hot pie in January or long strips or duct tape that would stop our whining.  

We have friends with a mulberry tree.  When I found out that they were leaving for the whole summer, I offered to pick their tree for them.  I'd never tasted mulberries before we lived in Baku, but I've grown fond enough of them to add mulberries to the growing list of trees in our hypothetical future orchard.  Almost impossible to get in the States, they are everywhere here.  Tajikistan was a silk producer in the the Soviet era, and the trees are still growing so in high season you can get mulberries from roadside stands for about forty cents a pound.

I watched the trees in our neighborhood for the telltale sign of mulberry season - squashed and rotten fruit littering the ground wherever a mulberry tree grows - and headed over to start picking when it was time.  And once I started, I couldn't stop.  One trip I spent two and a half hours picking and finished off the day with a gallon of frozen mulberries and six quarts of canned mulberries.  We also made jam and dried mulberries to put in granola bars.  

By the fourth trip, when the children asked why we were going over to pick mulberries - again - when we already had enough mulberries for milkshakes through the whole winter, I shrugged.  Because they were there.  I couldn't stand the idea of letting perfectly good mulberries rot when I could be there picking them - for free.  My hoarder tendencies just can't let perfectly good food just rot because I'm too lazy to go pick it.  Maybe we don't need mulberries, but if they're there, why not pick them? 

So when one of Brandon's co-workers offered to let us pick out her apple tree - here they have small apples here that come ripe in early summer - the children just sighed and hopped in the car with hardly any complaining.  The tree wasn't very large so it took about an hour to pick the apples in reach, filling four bags by the end.  There were still ripe apples on the tree, but most were too high for me to reach even while standing on the 'do not stand' part of the ladder while stretching far enough to make everyone nervous.  It was almost physically painful to leave those perfectly ripe sweet apples on the tree with nobody to pick them and take them home, destined to eventually fall and rot all alone with nobody to love or eat them.

I canned the apples, making almost fifteen quarts to add to the six quarts of mulberries.  Every time I pass my jars or see my bags in the freezer I feel smug, a squirrel hiding away nuts for winter.  I've got the blackberry patches in my neighborhood marked out and examine the tiny green berries each time I pass, planning my expeditions to gather even more free fruit to save up for the cold winter months.  I'm hoping that the locals don't have a taste for blackberries or have too much dignity to pick blackberries from the side of the road.  But just in case, I've memorized all of the blackberries patches on all of the hikes we've taken. 

I'm not sure what plans I have for all of that fruit.  Mulberry milkshakes are pretty tasty, and mulberry muffins weren't too bad.  Applesauce needs no plans; the children can polish off a quart in one sitting.  Maybe I can start enjoying blackberry pies in January.  And I am quite fond of blackberry cobbler.

Whenever I have fruit stored away for the winter, I feel rich.  I've been in a lot of places where preserving wasn't an option and I'm just too cheap to buy those bags of frozen fruit.  After all, it's not really necessary to have strawberries in your pancakes when snow's on the ground.  But now I can eat all the fruit I want in January.  Because it cost me nothing more than time and sweat.  And I've got plenty of both.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Adventure Saturday

Last Saturday we I decided to hiking on the Obigarm plateau, and area about an hour north of Dushanbe.  I head heard from several sources that hiking there was pretty nice.  According to some reconnoitering on my best friend in the world, Google Maps, there was a pretty obvious trail coming off the road to a still-operating Soviet era health spa that would lead us up onto the plateau above the spa.

After winding and winding and winding our way through the mountains on a road that didn't make Brandon happy - I tried to point out the pothole free paving - paving, not just rutted dirt tracks that had the faint memory of asphalt, and he just pointed to the sheer drop-off with randomly scattered concrete barriers that were only occasionally at road level instead of five or ten feet down the side of the hill - we made it to the spa.

So we turned around and went back to the bottom of the hill.  I saw something that looked promising, so after stopping to move a donkey out of the path, we started hiking.  Then it started raining.  The temperature in Dushanbe had been about eight-five when we left, but with the rain and altitude, it was down to sixty by the time the rain had started.  We waited five or ten minutes under a tree to see if it would stop before heading back down in the rain.  As we reached the car, the sun came out.

But we still had a picnic in Brandon's backpack, so we went in search of a good picnic-ing spot.  After some driving we pulled off by a little stream by the road and followed it back to a nice small waterfall with good wading spots.

The children, of course, were as happy as could be.  All of the good stuff - treats and wading - without any of the trouble to get there.

After eating all of the treats they stripped off shoes and socks and waded in the cold, cold water.  The only place water is coming from - ever - in this country is snow so that means that any moving body of water is cold enough to turn your legs bright red in about five minutes. 

But the children didn't care because it was a clear sunny day and who doesn't love wading in a rocky mountain stream?  I remember doing the same thing when I was about their age while visiting family in Oregon.  

By the end of our picnic, Joseph was pants-less - his shorts were getting wet because he was just too small - Edwin was soaked from the waist down, Kathleen had her shorts rolled up to her upper thighs, and I had my shoes and socks off too.  This is, of course, why we try to choose remote locations that are private.  Because if you're white trash when nobody is there to see it doesn't count, right?

Which worked just fine until someone came up the path right as Joseph had gone completely naked from the waist down.  This nice little waterfall also served as the local water source for several dachas down the hill from our picnic spot and this man was getting everything ready for the summer, including starting his water.  So after watching him fiddle and clean the rocks and dirt out of his pipe and climb the waterfall - useful information for our next trip - we cleared out and headed home.  

But I've got this spot marked for the next time we need some private wading on a hot summer day.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

It's the most tastiest time of the year

Once upon a time I wasn't aware of seasons.  I was aware of the weather seasons - it's pretty hard not to notice that part of the year it was snowing and part of the year it was really really hot - but not aware of food seasons.  When you can get strawberries any time of the year, why would you ever think that there was such thing as a strawberry season?  Aren't they always available?  And if they're not actually growing out of the ground, then there's some magical storage place that can keep them indefinitely so that I can have strawberries on my pancakes in January.

I knew that sometimes you couldn't get cherries but I wasn't quite sure why that was.  Sometimes there are cherries and sometimes there aren't.  That just how cherries are - much more finicky than the always available strawberry.

Then I moved to countries that were very far away from Chile and California.  Egypt wasn't too bad - tomatoes grow in the field in January - but there were still definitely seasons.  Mango season, the best season in the entire world, only comes once a year, so when those green globes of happiness start appearing, you'd better eat them until you are sick.

Baku was more restricted than Cairo, but they still access to a warmer climate - Iran - to stretch out their seasons.

But Dushanbe, well, it's a little isolated.  It's so isolated, in fact, that it costs on average twenty-five percent more to ship things here than any other country in the world.  They do have access to produce shipped in from Afghanistan, but last time I checked, Afghanistan wasn't really known as the California of Central Asia.

We moved here in November, pretty much the end of any growing season.  I prepared for this by shipping lots and lots and lots of canned tomatoes.  You can actually buy tomatoes year-round - evidently tomatoes are a staple food everywhere in the entire world (what did they do before Columbus?) - but they get pretty expensive and pretty mealy in the middle of winter.

For our fruit neds, we have been existing on oranges and apples since November.  In the fall I could find some kiwi and pears, but they've been long gone for quite some time.  As the winter has progressed, the apples have gotten mealier and mealier and the oranges mushier and mushier.  Even though I made sure the children got some fruit with lunch, I stopped eating apples when they practically fell to pieces at the touch of a knife.

Then, finally, at the end of April, the strawberries started appearing.  A few years ago I decided that my luxury food item isn't nice cuts of meat, seafood, or fancy cheeses, it's in season fruits and vegetables.  When strawberries only come once a year, I don't care how much they cost, I'm eating strawberries until I can't stand the sight of them any more.

Strawberry season is about at its end, but that's okay.  Because we're in the middle of apricots - oh how I love fresh apricots - and cherries.  Just this week I've bought four kilos of cherries alone.  When we first saw apricots while out for a hike, I bought two kilos on Monday.  They were gone by Tuesday afternoon.  Soon come plums, followed by peaches, then apples and pomegranates, grapes and pears.  I've been mentally mapping all of the blackberry patches in the neighborhood and watching the buds and then flowers appear, counting the months until blackberry season.

Some friends have a mulberry tree in the yard.  They are gone for the summer, so were happy to lend us their keys.  The children and I made our first trip to pick on Thursday.  After all of the eating, we picked and froze a gallon.  On Saturday I took Brandon and we picked a gallon and a half more.  I have plans for another trip this week.  Because who can turn down free fruit?

I know that in a few months all of the delicious abundant summer produce will be gone and we'll be back to bleak winter mealy apples and mushy oranges.  But right now it's the season of abundant deliciousness.  Mealy apples are a distant memory and a theoretical future.  Now is the time of never ending fresh, tasty produce.  Time to eat until we black out.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Birthday Saturday

At some point in the last eight years, we started a family tradition of Birthday Saturdays.  I think maybe it was a way to avoid spending money for anything but special occasions, or maybe it was my guilty subconscious compensating for our anti-birthday party policy.  So we decided that in addition to celebrating birthdays on the actual days, we also have a special family activity that costs money.  With seven birthdays in the family, it works out to a lot of birthday celebrations.

For Sophia's birthday Brandon and I decided to go to the "Central Garden," an amusement park a mile or two from our house.  The children have been ogling it every since they saw the Ferris wheel on our first drive to the embassy.  It is only open in the summer months and so we hadn't had an opportunity to try it out until recently.

I thought it would be fun (and easier than cooking) to take everyone out to dinner at a nearby tapchan restaurant that I had scoped out while driving around the city.  Brandon pointed out that we had just recovered from intestinal issues, but I'm a gambler at heart.  The restaurant served a local specialty, yogurt with flaky bread soaked in it and tomatoes and spices on top.  Brandon had heard good things about the dish so he decided to try it out.  

The children, after one fourth of a bite, declared it not so good, and nibbled at the cucumbers and sambusas while trying to drink as much juice as possible.  Eleanor tried to crawl all over the table and Joseph tried to loll everywhere while unintentionally kicking at the food.  Brandon manfully ate everyone's portions and some while I tried to amuse Eleanor with my phone, a bottle, a spoon, a cup, and diapers.  She still was somewhat dehydrated so I gave her some water, which promptly came back up along with her lunch all over the nice green cushions.  Brandon made sure to give the waiter a very big tip before we hastily retreated.

But, not being ones who were stopped by a little vomit, we went home and changed the baby before heading over to the amusement park.  The children started out on the bouncy slide.  Well, Sophia, Kathleen, and Edwin started out on the bouncy slide.  Joseph watched.  He got up his courage to try it a few times, but couldn't ever bring himself to climb up to the top.

Eleanor watched.  All the rides.

The children rode this exact same ride in Georgia.  I also saw the double of a ride the children rode in Baku.  Evidently everyone gets their tacky fiberglass rides from the same place.

Why children enjoy riding in fiberglass contraptions that spin and play "Mambo Number Five" is completely beyond me.  At least it was cheap.

Bumper cars, I can understand a little more.  Because, bumper cars!  Who doesn't like motorized crashes?

Poor Sophia could never quite get the hang of driving her car in anything but backward circles.  Eventually one of the park workers took pity on her and, after removing a sobbing Joseph (the bumping part wasn't his favorite), drove her around.  Kathleen, on the other hand, was in love.  Edwin, too.

After ice cream - nothing beats ice cream for the whole family for less than $1 - we rode the Ferris wheel.

Brandon hates heights and abhors dangerous situations with children.  Combine those and you've got a Ferris wheel.  The view was nice, but I don't think he saw any of it.

Joseph, however, approved.

We finally left around dusk, after two hours of fun fun fun.  The grand total for our outing - dinner and the park - came to a whopping $38.  With three more years - and all of the birthdays that will come during those years - I imagine we'll probably be returning to the Bogi Poitakht.  Maybe by the end we'll even get to ride some of the fun rides.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

This week Sophia turned seven.  I'm so used to thinking of her as my little girl, I can hardly believe that she is seven years old.  Seven really isn't so little any more - it's only a year away from being baptized.  I remember my uncle, as we were looking at two week-old Kathleen scrunched into her enormous carseat, telling me she looked so little then, but it wouldn't be too long before she was graduating from high school and leaving me.

Sophia was Eleanor's age when we joined the Foreign Service and now she's seven years old.  It really feels like it has maybe been a year or two.  Funny how time does that to you.

Sophia's birthday was, yet again, not quite what it should have been.  Brandon had stayed up until five that morning getting Pedialyte into Eleanor before succumbing himself.  I had stayed up until one thirty keeping him company, so we had a relaxed morning (no school on your birthday!) while I got a nap.

Then Sophia and I went to the grocery store for dinner supplies - eggs benedict as always - and some snacks.  We came home and picked up everyone minus the sickies and went to the embassy to play on the playground.  After dinner was cake ice cream (Sophia swore she would rather have ice cream than cake) and the best part, presents!

Presents always make any sub-par birthday better, right?  

Sophia continues to be a joy in our family.  She is kind to her younger siblings and often comes to me asking for work because she's bored.  She always (mostly) wants to do the right thing and is often the peacemaker when Kathleen gets bent out of shape about something.  I'm pretty glad to have her.

Happy Birthday, Sophia!