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Monday, April 27, 2015

Five Pros and Cons of Dushanbe




Perhaps the first thought crossed your mind - well the second thought after 'where in the heck is Dushanbe?!?' - was 'now that I know where Dushanbe is, I'm shocked to pieces that there are pros to living in the armpit of Central Asia.'  But I'm here to tell you that there are pros to living in the most mountainous country in the world that nobody's ever heard of.

We've been in Dushanbe almost six months and have made it through the roughest part of the year (according to me) and so I think I have a pretty good feel for living here in Dushanbe.

Pros:
1.  The mountains.  The mountains, the mountains, the mountains.  Did I mention the mountains?  Tajikistan is considered to be 92% mountainous, with half of the country over ten thousand feet.  Wherever you are in Dushanbe, you can look and see some pretty stunning mountain scenery to brighten up your day, and those mountains aren't very far away.  We can drive twenty minutes from our house and be at the trailhead of a hike.  I think that we could spend our whole tour hiking every weekend and still not even touch the possible hikes in this country.  And in the springtime, the mountains turn a violent green and burst into wildflowers.  After a long, grey winter it's wonderful.

2.  The housing.  Everyone here gets a house with a yard.  I haven't seen a house yet that wasn't three stories and almost every single house (not ours) has a full basement.  So there's lots and lots and lots of storage.  

3.  The embassy community.  Dushanbe is a small embassy community (about sixty American employees) so it's easy to get to know everyone.  There are constant activities being organized by the CLO and everyone is happy to make a new friend.  Everyone is like family, whether you like it or not.

4.  The traffic.  Occasionally I've hear about a 'traffic jam' that took a whole five minutes to clear up.  After living in Cairo and Baku, I'm floored every time Brandon and I cruise downtown on a Friday night and there's almost nobody out on the road.  Brandon takes fifteen minutes to get to work every day, no matter what time it is.  It's almost impossible to get lost because the city is so small.  And public transportation is dirt cheap - fifteen cents a bus ride.

5.  The people.  Tajiks are incredibly kind, warm people with amazing hospitality.  While out hiking a few weeks ago, we were invited for tea by some villagers working their fields.  We declined, but when we passed by them on our way back, they had tulips and fresh rhubarb for us.  Being an American is no problem here; they have had such little contact with Americans that we're just an oddity and not a source of hostility or free handouts.  Often we're mistaken for Russians.  

Cons:
1.  The housing.  The houses are large but have constant maintenance issues because they were built so badly.  In the six months since we've moved here, we've had the facing fall off a wall in our yard, flashing fall off the front of our house, light circuits burn out, two toilet seats break, a leak in our kitchen water piping, several transformers burn out (because of voltage surges), air conditioners not work, shower leaking, gutters leaking, split pack conduit fall off the wall (and then water coming out the wall when they tried to fix the conduit), toilets running, water faucet leaking, faucet handle snap off, and the power flick on and off every time I dried a load of laundry.  And our house is brand new.

2.  Power issues.  The power supply here is not very consistent.  Our generator will randomly kick in several times a week, and in the winter it would run for several hours a day.  This is especially annoying as we don't own a UPS so our computer gets shut down multiple times a day.  It's also annoying if you're using the bathroom when the lights go off before the generator kicks in.  We had friends whose power blew three driers before the embassy shelled out a lot of money for whole house voltage regulator.

3.  Produce.  The produce in the summer is wonderful - fresh, cheap, and all very local.  But in the winter you're down to carrots, potatoes, cabbage, beets, onions, garlic, cucumbers, and greenhouse tomatoes.  So you can put your kale, avocado, and arugula recipes away for the length of your whole tour.

4.  Living in a former Soviet Union country.  Tajikistan is still very much a child of the Soviet Union.  There is not much happening economically, so most of the infrastructure is left over from the Soviet era.  The roads are crumbling.  The walls are crumbling.  The sidewalks are crumbling.  The power poles are crumbling.  Anything that was made of concrete (which is almost everything) is crumbling.  Even the embassy, which is only eight years old, has crumbling sidewalks and roads.  The pool just got fixed up for the swim season because it was leaking.  And it just opened last August.  And it is the third pool built on the embassy compound since 2008.

5.  Getting here.  There are very limited flights in and out of Dushanbe, and every flight gets in at 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning.  So any travel from the states means two nights on an airplane.  And then when you add in the jet lag - recently I got to experience my first 12 hour time difference - it's just rough getting here.  And then it's rough adjusting.  But on the plus side, you probably won't have every relative you know (and some you don't) want to come and enjoy your hospitality while you're in Dushanbe.

Overall, we like Dushanbe, and we like it enough to have extended.  It's a great post for those looking for a quiet little country to enjoy a reasonable standard of living in and make some good friends.  It's not a good post for anyone who can't live without a large offering of cultural experiences, fine dining, night life, or really anything at all.  But for us, it's home, and we like it just fine.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Getting to know my med unit much too well

Last Sunday started out fine.  We had church, aloo gobi with parathas for dinner, and had started on rhubarb mousse for dessert when Kathleen's complaints about her stomach got loud enough that we decided to start listening.  Brandon looked a few things up on the internet, had Kathleen go through a handful of tests, and decided to call the med unit.  The medical facilities available in Tajikistan aren't anywhere you'd like to have your appendix taken out, so catching anything early enough to make a flight to London is a good idea.

The med officer was out of town, so Brandon met the assistant, a local doctor who worked at the embassy, at the med unit.  An hour or so later he came back with a clean bill of health.  She had both her blood and urine checked and nothing showed up.  I'm always happy to be wrong, but there is something anti-climactic about getting all worked up for nothing.

Monday also started out fine.  We had school, went for a walk, and Sophia and I cooked black bean soup and cornbread muffins for dinner.  I was busy finishing the neglected mousse from Sunday night and didn't get Joseph off the counter when he climbed up to helpfully stir the soup.  He was sitting backwards, playing with my spoons when he fell off the counter.  I picked him up, checked for blood, comforted him, and laid him on the couch while I finished up dinner.

It was warm so we ate outside.  Joseph devoured his muffin and had to be fed his soup, as always.  He complained about not feeling well so I laid him down on the couch.  Brandon came home from work a few minutes later and found Joseph fast asleep.  I told him about the fall.  Concerned, Brandon woke Joseph up and made a vain attempt at seeing if Joseph's eyes were tracking properly.  After a failed attempt with Brandon's fingers, I pulled out my phone right as Joseph announced that he was going to throw up and stumbled for the bathroom.

Unfortunately the bathroom was a long walk from the couch and I got to clean up the trail while Brandon showered Joseph down and got him ready for bed.  We tucked him in and I fetched a bowl to save the bedroom carpet.  I brought it just in time for Joseph to use it.  Brandon got to work on Google.  After looking up reasons while you should take your child to the ER after a head injury and finding 'repeated vomiting,' we decided that three times counts as 'repeated.'  If the threw up again, it was time to call the med unit.  Again.

He threw up.  We called the assistant.  After she heard that he had thrown up three times, she started calling clinics to see what was open.  A few minutes later she called back.  Nothing was open.  How was Joseph?  He had just vomited again - just bile now - and so this time we got a house call.  After some examination, Joseph was declared fracture free and fine until morning when the clinics would be open for an MRI.  After the doctor left, he threw up a couple more times before calling it a night and getting to sleep around ten.

The next morning Brandon took him for his very first MRI.  He wiggled so badly that sedation was brought up, but he managed to calm down and eventually just fell asleep.  Brandon brought him home for lunch, and another child was given another clean bill of health.  I was told to not let any more children injure themselves for at least six months.  I stayed quiet.

Friday also started out fine.  The children had school off so I made two pounds of cheese before spending a lovely spring morning outside drawing.  We had plans for meeting friends at the botanical gardens in the afternoon.  The children helped me pack snacks and got their bikes ready to go before heading out.  Everyone was out enjoying the beautiful spring weather and the children explored the paths that wound through the forest, biking ahead and only returning when our calling got loud enough to raise half of Dushanbe.  One time Sophia came back covered in dirt and scratches, crying.  She had crashed her bike, she told me, but some people helped her up and she was okay.  I checked for protruding bones, suspicious bumps, or large swelling.  There weren't any, so we went on.

Sophia, however, felt badly enough to need a twenty minutes' rest before heading back home.  By the end of the ride, she was walking her bike because the rough roads caused her left arm to hurt too much.  I called Brandon.  Luckily he was at work so he couldn't yell.  We conferenced and decided to wait and see in the morning.  The next morning her arm still hurt.  We conferenced again.

I wanted to call up our very good friends and march down to the hospital and get everything taken care of.  We were both home and so nobody would have to miss work or school.  Brandon pointed out that we had already called out the cavalry twice that week and maybe it would be better to wait until Monday during normal working hours.  So we waited.

Monday I got to see the med officer, as our dear friend the assistant had just started an extended leave.  After having Sophia twist her arm, take off her shirt, push against his hand, and a few other things, he declared that her arm probably wasn't broken.  But just to be sure, she would get an x-ray.  Unfortunately, he couldn't go with us because he was the only person in the med unit.  And so our very good friend was called in from her leave to take Sophia to a local clinic for an x-ray.

After a few quick pictures (Mom, that was really fast!), Sophia was declared fracture-free.  As a mother I was relieved.  But I also felt kind of silly for getting alarmed when there turned out to be no problems.  But in the end it's better to not have a broken arm, even if you have feel silly in order to make sure.

Brandon has put us all on a strict diet of doing nothing and going nowhere for at least the next month.  It's bad enough to plague your local pediatrician, but it's ten times worse when you start to get a reputation as that family who has so many children who are getting hurt all of the time - people might start to think that we're doing something wrong.  But I am grateful that no emergency plane flights were taken and everyone is in good health.  For now.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Living in Dushanbe: Driving

We've now been in Dushanbe for five months.  Our car has been here for three months and so I've had enough time to do a bit of driving here.  Brandon usually takes the car to work since I (by my own choice) don't go out much.  The children and I have school every morning and we have a 'park' close enough to walk to, so there's real no need to get out.  But I have driven enough in Dushanbe - I'm by no means scared of driving here, I just usually don't need to - to have gotten a feel for the local conditions.

I only ever drove once when we were in Cairo, so Baku was really first overseas driving experience, and I still remember the sweat slicking my palms the first time I climbed behind the wheel of my big back Honda Pilot (good thing my seat was electric so I could raise it enough to see over the wheel).  Thankfully we had bought a GPS map of Baku; if we hadn't I don't know if I would have had the courage to join the melee that passed for driving in Baku.  But, as with just about everything in life, I got used to it.  Sometimes I even forgot that I was driving around in a foreign country and that in some places people actually obey lane markers.

 But despite my nonchalance about driving in Baku, I was happy to get away from the crazy traffic and crazy drivers and Brandon's variable commute time - anywhere from ten minutes to an hour to travel three miles.

My time in DC made me even more excited to move to a city where there was, according to some reports, no rush hour traffic.  What would it be like to live in a city where the embassy was only fifteen minutes away, no matter the time of day?  Brandon, after talking about traffic with his Tajik teacher, tried to calm me down.  "Karim says," he patiently explained, "that there are more and more cars and the traffic is getting worse.  So don't get your hopes too high."

I did anyway, and when Brandon came home from his first day of work, I immediately questioned him about commute times.  "Well, I can't be sure because we were in a shuttle and had to drop off several people, but it didn't look like it should take any more than fifteen minutes.  We'll have to see."

After our car arrived, was registered (which went off without a hitch, thanks to an amazingly bad set of locally-made windows that we swapped out in Baku for our non-customs clearing tinted ones.  There are at least three cars in the embassy parking lot that are still not registered because of tinted windows), and got its new set of magical red plates, Brandon started driving to work.  And like clockwork, it took him fifteen minutes, no matter what time of day.

When I finally had a reason to drive myself I got to see conditions myself and saw why his times never changed - there were hardly any cars on the road.

Dushanbe is tiny for a capitol city - less than 700,00 people and only has two major roads in the central part of the city - one going north and south and the other east and west.  Both roads are only six lanes wide, with one lane on each side usually used for parking and taxis.  There are no highways in the entire country - once you get out of Dushanbe there is not a single road that is wider than four lanes and only a handful of those.  Most of the country is lucky if the roads are paved at all.

We live on a 'four lane' road major enough to show up as a yellow line on Google maps, and the children and I cross it regularly on foot to get to a friend's house - something I'd never have considered doing in Baku.  Nobody ever gets above thirty five miles an hour in the city and cars come infrequently enough that we have plenty of space to make our slow was across traffic.

Saturday night Brandon and I went to a gathering at a mission member's house.  When we were leaving, the host asked if it wouldn't be too much out of our way to drop another guest off at the Hyatt.  We just laughed as we led our fellow guest to the car - what place in Dushanbe would be out of the way?  Maybe the next town over.  Maybe.

We've heard some complaints about the driving here - but Brandon and I just have to laugh.  The driving here is the usual level of non-first world craziness - passing on double yellow lines, the occasional running of red lights, a little bit of tailgating and taking turns from the wrong lane, but there just aren't that many cars on the road so everything is pretty easy to avoid.  The most irritating thing is the marshrutkas that make up roughly one third of the cars on the road (taxis make up another third) and stop randomly in inconvenient places - like in the middle of the road - and block up traffic.  But usually you can just pull around them and if you are stuck, it takes about thirty seconds before the block is cleared up.  The other day we had to wait for an entire minute and I almost died of impatience.

If this were my first time in these driving conditions I would be appalled by the erratic driving and constant pedestrians crossing against green lights, not in cross walks, and wearing black clothes late at night, but it's not my first time and I've already seen much much worse before coming here.  The traffic here is just refreshing after Baku and DC and I know that I'll tell tales of Brandon's fifteen minute commute for years after we leave Dushanbe.

So I can put driving and traffic firmly in the 'pluses' column of Dushanbe.  Sure, it maybe not exactly what I grew up with, but who can complain about a city with no rush hour traffic?  I certainly won't, and I'm going to make sure to enjoy it for the next two years.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Adventure Saturday (with no pictures)

For our adventure this past Saturday, we went hiking.  Again.  I think the children would enjoy an adventure that involved less hiking and more sitting around, but there's not much of the latter available in Tajikistan, so hiking it is.

When we were in Baku we had a wonderful book filled with all sorts of things to do in Azerbaijan, complete with GPS coordinates and hand-drawn maps.  Any time we wanted an adventure, I just had to go look in the book.  I found a Tajikistan book on Amazon, but it isn't nearly so helpful as the book from Azerbaijan.  'There's a lovely little hike near the village of Dara,' the book will say, but then it won't bother to tell you where Dara is or how to find the hike.  We had quite the time attempting to get to Takob ski resort using the vague directions in the book 'the river forks and one of them leads to the ski resort.  The other doesn't.'

There is a group in Dushanbe that leads hikes every weekend - but the hikes are always on Sunday, and are only attended by adults.  So even if the hikes were on Saturday, I can't imagine anyone being happy about having five small children tagging along.

And so I just kind of make up things as I go along.  Sometimes I'll just look on Google maps for something that looks promising, but a satellite view is not the same thing as driving on a road.  I'll also try and figure out on Google what the Hike Tajikistan group means when they say 'Gusgarf hike.'  And I'll also take recommendations.  But I never go with other people - nobody ever wants to have five children tag along on their hike.

What this means is that every Saturday we go hiking, I get to try and piece together what sketchy information I have into something that ends up at a specific point in Tajikistan that is theoretically supposed to give everyone a fun time.

This past Saturday I used a map I found on the internet and got a reasonable idea of where to start.  We finally got paper maps of Tajikistan and I was lucky enough to find the town where the hike started on my map.  Maps and roads, however, are two different things.  But, after two false starts, we finally ended up on a road that looked like it was going in the right direction.

The hike summary mentioned 'sketchy roads,' which I made sure to alert Brandon to.  My idea of 'sketchy roads' and his idea, however, apparently were two different things, as I got at least three 'you are not my friend right now' during our drive up.  I guess he isn't fond of one lane metal bridges with holes in them or large rocks in the middle of the road or narrow roads with drop-offs on both sides.  I did point out, however, that this time it was sunny and dry.  He did't seem to be too grateful.

We eventually made it to a point where further driving seemed like a bad idea and unloaded everyone for our hike.  The weather was absolutely perfect - sunny and sixty five.  Everyone was happy to get out and stretch their legs and enjoy the warm spring weather.  Three miles later they were happy to have snacks by a snow-fed rocky mountain creek and turn around back for the car.  Our path went by the villager's fields where they were out getting them ready for spring planting.  We passed too many donkeys to count, all loaded up with firewood that had been cut from the hills.  Invitations were issued for chai-drinking, flowers and wild rubarb were given, and one man who kept us company for several miles offered to host us for the night or at least give us dinner.  Eleanor, however, decided that five hours of being strapped to my back was too much and so we thanked him, exchanged phone numbers, and promised to give him a call next time we were in Dara.

Then we headed home and straight for the ibuprofen.  Because it turns out that five hours in absolutely clear mountain sunshine at five thousand feet will give you a fierce sunburn.  The tips of Kathleen's ears were almost purple and every single one of us burned the backs of our necks.  I couldn't kneel to pray the next morning because of the burns on the back of my calves and changing clothes was torture.

So things to remember for next time: define 'sketchy roads' more clearly with Brandon (any road that is more than five miles from a main highway) and bring sunscreen.  Lots and lots and lots of sunscreen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Easter Weekend

For all Mormons living in America and timezones within reasonable reach of Utah, last weekend was Conference Weekend, in addition to being Easter weekend.  But since an eleven-hour time difference turns a ten o'clock morning session into a nine o'clock night session, we did not watch conference last weekend.  We had firm plans to watch it this weekend, pretending that conference was just delayed by a week.  Unfortunately, one of our members had work all weekend, so next week we have conference.  That's the great thing about home-churching: scheduling is a lot more flexible.

So instead of watching eight hours of Conference talks last weekend, we celebrated Easter.  We attended the embassy Easter egg hunt hosted by the CLO Saturday morning.  Brandon and I debated about going - attending any social event with five small-ish children is a guaranteed workout- but finally were persuaded by the children.  It was the first sunny Saturday in a few weeks, so I wanted to go hiking.  Somehow the children didn't agree that walking up a hill and getting sweaty would be better than looking for free candy.

One of our CLOs enjoys throwing big parties, so eighty one American and Tajik children showed up to eat hot dogs, get their face painted, make bunny ear hats, play games, and most importantly, find their six eggs that had candy in them.  The children enjoyed running around with friends and picking dandelions from the lawn.  I enjoyed getting to know a new mission member, pretending to be an old pro at living in Dushanbe.

Sunday we had church in the morning.  Neither Brandon's family or my family had Easter baskets growing up and so we haven't even thought about having them as part of our Easter traditions.  I remember getting a new Easter dress every year, but that didn't make it to our family traditions either.  Sadly, we're pretty lacking in any Easter traditions.  I don't remember the last time we dyed eggs.  I'll have to work on that next year.

We did have Easter dinner together with friends, however, which is an Easter tradition I do like.  Some holidays aren't much fun when they're celebrated alone.  We got to be part of their Easter tradition - a double-elimination egg roll tournament.  The children had a great time rolling eggs, trying to crack the other person's and perhaps win it all.  Sophia ended up triumphing over all thirteen contestants, beating all comers with the same egg each round.

And that was Easter weekend.  Nothing fancy and nothing particularly profound.  But we did have fun and the children got candy, so that's got to count for something.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Living in Dushanbe: Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping is a universal constant.  Everyone in the world has to eat and everyone in the world has to either be the one who gets the food or has food gotten for them by somebody.  In our family, I'm the actual food-getter (Brandon pays for the food, but I actually go out and get the stuff) and so much of my life revolves around food, either getting it, making it, or cleaning it up.  That's a main part of my job, part of the agreement that Brandon and I have that lets me stay home and take a nap every day.

Whenever I think about living somewhere, I first think of the weather and then I think of what food I can get there.  Food is a main tool for my job and so it's a big consideration.  Sub-Saharan Africa may have mangoes, but they're not much of a dairy culture, which is a bit of a problem.  

I knew that Dushanbe wouldn't exactly be a foodie paradise - my favorite quote from the welcome info was "although product varieties are less abundant  than in more developed countries, one begins to appreciate how uncomplicated life becomes when there are fewer shopping decisions to make"- so I shopped accordingly for my consumables shipment and steeled myself for canned vegetables until summer.

My sponsor took me shopping when we arrived and showed me the several stores most people used.  I was a little surprised with what actually could be gotten - tomatoes are apparently a world staple in pretty much any large city - and unsurprised with what couldn't be found - nope, still no peanut butter.  The stores here aren't too different in variety than the stores in Baku, but I'm generally not an exotic-items shopper.  I have whole cookbooks worth of recipes that can't be cooked while I live overseas.  I've got a rotation of twenty or thirty recipes that have ingredients I know I can get or I know to pack in my consumables.  Any new recipe I come across is first evaluated for the availability of ingredients.

In Baku, one could get exotic ingredients if one wanted to go all over the city looking for them and then pay out the nose for jars of American pasta sauce.  I was never that person, so now that those stores aimed at rich foreigners don't exist I really don't miss them.  It's good to be a cook from scratch cook when you live in a land of basic ingredients.  It's pretty amazing the variety of meals you can make that contain carrots, onions, potatoes and cabbage.  

The grocery store here do have very limited produce section (although surprisingly large quantities of ginger can be bought) but it's much cheaper and fresher(ish) at the local bazaar so I have my housekeeper shop for me each week at the bazaar.  She also brings eggs and bread.  There is fresh milk available at the stores here, but I have a milk lady bring fresh milk twice a week, from which I make a variety of milk products (yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, cream, sometimes butter).  

This means that I only have to go to the grocery store about once a month, or whenever our butter supply runs low.  Brandon takes the car to work, so it's good that I don't have to shop very often, because when I keep the car it costs taxi fare for him to get to work.  And I'm happy to shop infrequently enough that I forget when it was I last went to the store.

One day I'll be back in the land of twenty varieties of peanut butter and fifty varieties of cheese and I'm not sure if I'll know what to do with myself after having spent decades cooking the same thirty recipes.  I hardly ever even make grocery lists any more because I get the same twelve things - snacks, butter, chicken, pasta, chocolate, juice, occasional condiments, spices, cheese, flour, dried fruit, and nuts - whenever I go to the grocery store.  At first I fought against constantly cooking the same thing - even if nobody else gets bored I do - but recently I've given up caring so much.  Cooking is a job and everyone gets fed even if I'm not excited about what I'm cooking.

I'm looking forward to summer when produce becomes fresh, abundant, and delicious.  The payoff for living through the darkness and unending diet of root vegetables is strawberries, apricots, cherries, peaches, raspberries, blackberries, nectarines, pears, apples, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, squash, and cucumbers that were on the plant twenty-four hours before they're in your stomach or on top of your pancakes.  And on those days, you can take your twenty varieties of peanut butter and fifty of cheese.  I'll have cherries in everything instead.



Monday, March 30, 2015

Hissor Fort

This past weekend was Novruz, or Persian New Year, so Brandon got to enjoy one of the great perks of living overseas - having both American and local holidays off.  On Monday we went with friends to Hissor Fort, one of the main historical sites in Tajikistan.


The entire complex is pretty old (how old, nobody's exactly sure), so there's not much of the actual fort left.  There's been some reconstruction, but pretty much it's a big grassy area on a hill with the suggestion of mud-brick walls that have melted into just mud.  


There is also a museum and an old caravanseri, but we never made it there - this time.  We have two confirmed visitors already, so we'll have at least two more opportunities to visit the museum.  


This time there was just a lot of climbing grassy wall/hills.


Making most of the parents nervous, not wanting to have to climb down the other side of the hill and then climb back up with the injured/crying child followed by trying explain to the med officer why they were letting the child climb high and dangerous hills in a country with questionable medical care.  Sometimes the impersonality of an American ER unit is nice.


But the children, of course, enjoyed the climbing because of the inherent danger.  What fun is childhood without some risks?  And bonus points for making your parents nervous!


Spring is turtle season around here, and we got found by some boys who had a turtle they wanted to sell us.  Joseph didn't understand that holding their turtle every time he was handed the poor thing only made the boys think that we'd actually buy it off them.  Eventually they wandered off to find more receptive parents.


All of the children, minus Eleanor.  She spent the day, as she spends every outing, strapped to my back.  She will have deep childhood memories of always being strapped to someone's back whenever something interesting was happening.


After we'd finished with the fort, we moved to the whole purpose of our visit: Hissor Fried Chicken.  When the weather is nice, Tajiks like to spend as much time outside as possible and every home has a big wooden platform called a tapchan.  Every possible spare moment is spent lounging, sleeping, and eating on the tapchan, which is a habit I could easily pick up.  

The Hissor Fried Chicken restaurant has an assortment of tapchans scattered throughout the complex, which is shaded by large spreading trees and has a stream running through it.  Our tapchan was over the stream, which was nice but also alarming to the parents of children who might think the stream was a good place to swim.

After we'd eaten our salad and bread, the chicken was brought out, stacked five or six high and so fresh from the frying oil that nobody could touch it for several minutes.  Everybody dug in, grabbing a flattened piece and eating themselves into a near-coma of fried tasty goodness.  Even the children stopped trying to jump in the stream to eat themselves silly.  

We all finally had to stop and head home, filled to bursting with sunshine, friendship, and fried chicken.  Who could ask for more?

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Life with children is always evolving and changing.  When I had one child I was able to pretty much ignore her all day long while I went about my usual business being a stay-at-home mom.  She would make noise when she got bored and need feeding, but really it wasn't too bad.  Then the second came.  There was a lot of stress involved with keeping the first from maiming or hurting the second, but there were two and so I could manage it.  Three was pretty hard because I had three babies all at once - a three year-old baby, and eighteen month-old baby and a newborn baby.  But still I was able to keep it together.  By the time the youngest started being a real factor in the household life, the two oldest were able to keep each other company.  Everything took longer, but I got used to starting bedtime routines at four in the afternoon.

Four was more work, but Kathleen was pretty independent, and so I was able to juggle everything and still keep the household running by having about sixteen hands.  I didn't have any help, but with two reasonably independent, I only had two to mind, and by that point the baby was the easy one.

Now I have five.  Well, I've actually had five for almost a year now.  Five, just in case you were wondering, is starting to be a lot of children.  Five is an especial lot when they were had over a 7 1/2 year stretch.  That means that not only do I have five, but not one of them is old enough to babysit, cook dinner, or independently clean a kitchen.

Five is enough that I physically cannot take care of every single need that each child has.  Maybe I could, but I think that it would come at the cost of my sanity and precious, necessary personal downtime.  When Eleanor has a poopy diaper and Sophia can't find her reading book and Edwin is hitting Joseph I literally can't take care of all of those things at the same time.  Somebody's got to wait or fix the problem themselves or ask someone else for help.  There are enough independent entities with enough personal problems and interpersonal interactions that at least once and hour there are two simultaneous crises.  Do I fetch Joseph off the top of the box stack or snatch the chocking hazard from Eleanor's slimy baby grasp?  Do I keep the onions from burning or stop Joseph from splashing all of the bath water onto the bathroom floor?  Do I break up a yet another fight or finish the lesson that has already been interrupted ten times?

And so, I cope.  I used to feel like a one-man juggling act, catching every singe ball just before it hit the floor, personally keeping everything in the entire household moving.  I would start dinner, get to a point where it could wait, bathe and dress the children, put the baby to bed, come back and finish dinner before setting the table and calling everyone down.  It was a moral victory because I could get this all done with only one or maybe two children hanging around and the rest would blessedly find somewhere other than the kitchen to make messes amuse themselves.

Now I am turning into a general, issuing orders as we come in from our afternoon walk.  "Kathleen, you bathe with Joseph.  Make sure to put his clothes and towel up when he's done.  Don't forget to dress him!  Sophia, you've got Edwin and Eleanor today.  Edwin can take care of his own things.  After Eleanor is dressed, come down for her bottle.  After she's done, put her to bed.  Don't forget to clean up the dirty clothes!  I'm going to make dinner.  After everyone's done with baths, clean up the toy room.  It has to be done before you eat!  Okay, everyone, go!"  Then they all scatter.

This sounds very good in theory.  I assign tasks out to children, the children complete the tasks cheerfuly, and we all meet together for a delightful evening meal with clean faces, clean pajamas, and a clean toy room.

And this will probably work out as planned in a few years, but not yet.  Because I'm assigning the lead tasks to an eight year-old and a six year-old, who sometimes get distracted or angry with their siblings or can't find the soap or can't keep the five year-old from beating up on the three-year old.  And then some of the orders get forgotten and wet towels line the path from bathroom to bedroom and dirty diapers hide in dark corners of the hallway and forgotten underwear is covered in soap suds from the bath water that inevitably gets splashed despite the daily stern warnings about no splashing.
So dinner, which should be a solitary ritual in a sunny afternoon kitchen, becomes the second day's workout as I dash up and down and up and down and up and down the stairs to put out the latest fire that absolutely needs my help.  I always start with shouting up the stairwell, but it never ends there.  And so dinner, which has been timed to start with just enough time to get it done by six, is never done by six because it always has at least sixteen interruptions that weren't listed in the cooking time on the recipe.  Prep time: 15 minutes.  Cooking time: 40 minutes.  Breaking up fights: 10 minutes.  Finding lost items: 5 minutes.  Making children pick up dirty clothes and towels: 7 minutes.  Making the baby's bottle: 5 minutes.  Staring out the window aimlessly: 2 minutes.

When I was in college I skied.  I'd only going skiing once before I got ski equipment my freshman year in college.  I was reckless and loved going fast and loved to look brave, so I took on challenging slopes that I had no business tackling as a beginner skier.  I still remember hurtling down a too-steep slope at top speed because I didn't have enough skill to carve and slow myself down.  I had enough control to keep my skis pointed downhill and could keep it together as long as I didn't run into a tiny patch of ice or rough spot.  The icy wind would rush past, whipping my braids straight out behind me and I would clench my teeth as the skis chattered back and forth beneath me.  Each run would end in a sigh of relief and dread for the next fast hill.  I was happy to give it up when I married Brandon.

My life some days feels like those runs, barely in control and going much too fast for any sensible control.  I should slow down, take some more time to get things done, but I'm in the middle and it's too late and so we just have to hold on until bedtime and rest before the whole show starts over again.  All days are not the slow-motion train wreck, of course.  Some days we hit the timing just right with enough to get everything down and everyone taken care of and everyone still speaking to each other by the end of the day.  Sometimes there's even a story.  But other days is just one non-stop ride from beginning to end and we're lucky to make it to bedtime with everyone alive.

I've never regretted my decision to have five children or to have them so close together.  Already some things are starting to pay off - I'll never trade watching all of the older children crowd around Eleanor's crib for her goodnight kiss for all of the clean houses in the world.  I have no doubt that I'll remember that in twenty years after all of the dirty towels, dirty diapers, and dirty rooms have faded into insignificant details from a particularly busy part of my life.  I will forget teetering on the edge of control and only remember the days filled with my babies and their cheerful smiles and sunny natures.  That is the magic of memories - you can redact your own life and and only keep the best parts.

And so for now, I hold on and remember that all of life is only temporary - both the bad and the good parts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Living Off the Fat of the Land

We've been getting a home milk delivery now for over three months.  A week of two into pasteurizing ten liters a week with a boiling water bath convinced me to order a home pasteurizer.  Didn't know those existed?  Neither did I.

Pasteruizing used to mean hauling out my 21-quart pressure canning pot, filling it with water, hefting it on top of my commercial grade hot plate (evidently easy-back flat tops can't handle large pots full of boiling water), cranking in on, waiting several hours, carefully lowering a pot full of milk into the boiling water, balancing one of the pot handles on a wooden spoon (once that didn't work out so well and I lost a whole batch into the boiling water), watching the temperature, setting a timer for those pesky thirty minutes while maintaining the milk at 145 degrees, carefully lifting a very hot pot of milk out of hotter water, putting it into an ice bath in the sink, waiting for it to cool down, and finally straining it (milk skins are nasty) into bottles.

Now I just pour the milk into my two-gallon milk pail straight from the milk lady's 5-litre bottle, put it in the pasteurizer, fill the pasteurizer with hot water, turn it on, and go on my merry way.  About half an hour later it buzzes loud enough that my neighbors know it's milk day.  Then I uncork the outlet hose, hook up the inlet hose to my faucet, and let cold tap water run through until the milk has cooled down.  Then I sit it in the refrigerator until the next day before pouring the milk into bottles.

I used to skip the refrigeration and pour the milk straight into bottles.  Then I could re-use the pail for the next batch of milk and get it all done before lunch.  Then one day I ran out of cream.  Everyone has staple ingredients they keep in their kitchen, those things that get used so constantly you don't even write them down on the grocery list anymore.  I always have several pounds of butter in the freezer, a couple of containers of sour cream in the refrigerator door, and a box of cream.  Because, milk fat.  You just can't turn out a decent meal without it.

The day I ran out of cream was a friend's birthday.  I had searched through my cookbooks for recipes that 1. didn't need frosting (that means waiting for the cake to cool down) 2. could be made in two hours or less (birthday cakes aren't nearly as nice the day after your birthday), and 3. used ingredients already in the house.  I had enough time to make a cake, but not enough make a cake and run to the store for ingredients.

I settled for an apple-walnut tart and got to work.  Halfway through the crust and a quarter of the way through the filling, I reached for cream that went into both.  It wasn't there.  At this point I was already committed.  Maybe I could just substitute milk?  We did have whole milk after all.  Close enough?  I pulled out one of my recently-pasteurized bottles of milk and noticed the usual half inch of cream floating on the surface.  So I started skimming and pretty quickly collected more than the half cup I needed for my recipe.  I felt very clever and finished the tart before my friend's birthday was over.

The next week, instead of pouring the newly pasteurized milk into bottles, I let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.  In the morning I pulled off the top, ladle in hand, ready to skim.  Within a few minutes I had over two cups of cream.  Who knew there was so much cream in two gallons of milk?

I collected more cream from the next batch of milk and pretty soon I had two Mason jars sitting in the refrigerator, just waiting for me to do whatever I wanted with it.  And the best part was that it was free - I had already paid for the milk, which was already cheaper than any other milk I can buy in Dushanbe.  With the value of the cream added in, I was getting two dollars' worth of cream and milk for just sixty-seven cents, delivered.

Now that I had a weekly delivery of half a gallon of cream I had to figure out what to do with that cream.  First I made yogurt and added half a cup of cream to the quart I was making.  I really like the yogurt here, which is labeled by the milk fat percentage.  Unfortunately the higher the milk fat content, the more expensive the yogurt.  But now I had a constantly replenishing supply of cream.  No more low fat yogurt for me!

Then I made sour cream.  Why not, when you have cream just sitting around, waiting to be used before it goes bad?  Next was tomato cream soup.  I felt very homemaker-y when I used a jar of home-canned tomatoes with my home-pasteurized cream.  Then came crepes for Saturday morning breakfast - with whipped cream, of course.

The week before I went to my brother's wedding was busy so the cream just piled up in the refrigerator unused.  I knew that Brandon wouldn't be up to making yogurt and sour cream while trying to keep the children fed and his job done, so I had to do something with all of the cream sitting in my refrigerator.

So I made butter.  I cultured the butter (with my home-cultured buttermilk, of course) the night before and after the children were in bed I pulled out my Bosch.  I had read various methods for making butter online, and decided to stick with the simplest - pour cream into mixer, turn it on, and wait until butter magically appeared.  I had read that the fat content would affect the butter, and some people complained about light cream never turning into butter.  I had been greedy skimming my cream and occasionally got a little milk into the ladle along with the cream.  Would this be a problem?  There was only one way to find out.  If it didn't happen, that was a lot of slightly sour cream to pour down the drain.

So, nervous and excited about my newest adventure in food production, I poured in the cream, plugged in the mixer, and turned it on.  After thirty seconds, nothing had happened.  Would it work?  It didn't even look like whipped cream.  I turned the mixer back on for another thirty seconds.  Still nothing.  I turned it on and forced myself to clean up the kitchen from all of the other projects I had been working on.  I puttered around, putting things back in their places.  While I was in my storage room putting away canning jars, the sound of the mixer changed.  I rushed back in and turned it off.  And there, clinging to the whips in glistening golden lumps, was butter.  My very own homemade butter, made from the cream that I had skimmed from the milk I had pasteurized.  I did a little dance around the kitchen and told the air that I was awesome.  Never mind that butter is made by people all around the world every single day.  Never mind that butter has been made for millennia.  This was the first time I made butter.  From cream I skimmed myself.  I've been making bread for years and started making cheese a few months ago.  And now I've made butter.


I think I've probably reached the arc of homemaking extremism that is really possible while living in a foreign country in government leased housing.  We talked about getting a goat before being assigned a house with about six square feet of grass, but I think home dairying is going to have to wait for an African post.  But until then, I've got yogurt and buttermilk and sour cream and ice cream and butter.  Hello, milk fat.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Adventure Saturday

I've never thought of myself as crazy until I married Brandon and moved to Tajikistan.  Every Saturday I cook up another scheme to go out and have an adventure.  And every time, despite all of my careful planning, there's always one point where Brandon swears that we can't be friends ever again.  


Last Saturday was no different.  We decided to head south where the drive took us through fields of fruit trees that were, unfortunately, not bloom yet.  I had scoured satellite maps of the area for likely hiking site - canyons that were steep enough to have trees on the sides - and found a good candidate.  It looked pretty straightforward from the map.  Unfortunately, the map wasn't very good at showing elevation.


Or streams to ford.  We bought a four-wheel drive vehicle for a reason, so we made it through the village to where the "road" petered out, parked the car and started walking.  That's pretty much the recipe for finding a hike here - point your car at the mountains, drive until the road gives out, get out, and start hiking.


The country is covered in sheep trails, so just follow the sheep trails and the water and you won't go wrong.


The day was a stunningly beautiful early spring day - sunny and crisp with vividly green grass carpeting the hillsides.


We crossed streams,


looked rugged,


picked flowers,


and of course, at snacks.  And then threw rocks into the stream after eating snacks.


I was clever this time and brought our backpacking chairs and so after snacks Brandon and I luxuriously lounged in the clear spring sunshine while the children threw rocks, messed in the mud, and enjoyed doing whatever children do when they're left to themselves.  Kathleen and Sophia collected various rocks and sticks to take home with them and use in their dollhouse.


One day Edwin's going to love re-creating that face for a picture redo.


"Mommy, take a picture of me!!!"


Eleanor approves of this hike.