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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Family Pictures

While we were in Missouri this summer, we subjected ourselves to the ordeal known as Family Pictures.  Back in 2012, we had the very talented Mark Neuenschwander from 9art photography take our family pictures and were pleased to find that he still lived in the neighborhood and would take some more pictures.  He was willing to meet us at 7:30 in the morning (on the day we left to go home) and we got some great pictures.  And also, nobody ended up in the ER this time.

This is where Edwin tries to eat Sophia's arm.

This is where (most) everyone - okay half the family - smiles.

Mark tried and tried and tried to get Edwin to smile, but instead we got a a series of pictures that strongly remind me of Calvin's holiday pictures.
Image result for calvin and hobbes taking pictures

That counts.  Even if it's in some weird froggy-dinosaur-dog pose.

Joseph, always willing to smile (and with a newly-scraped knee).

And Eleanor.  I hope none of the children mind that we love her best.

And again.  Because, Eleanor.

Kathleen, still little, but not for long.

The girls.

The boys.

The one time Brandon smiled for a picture.

The End.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Living in Dushanbe (and earning that differential) – Travel

 Dushanbe is one of the highest differential posts in the world.  According to the State Department’s arcane schedule of Things That are Hard to Live With, Dushanbe is just as difficult as garden spots like Caracas, Mali, or Congo  and only slightly less hard to live in than Afghanistan.  Most of the time I feel like we found a pretty easy way to beef up our retirement accounts, but every now and then I run into something that I most definitely have to agree with State about.

And today I’m here to tell you about Dushanbe and travel.  Because every time we travel I have no doubt in my mind that Dushanbe really just as bad as Papua New Guinea and only slightly better than Afghanistan (although I haven’t looked up their travel options, so they might have a better deal).

Dushanbe has an international airport, one that just finished new construction about a week before we moved here (although the parking lot just opened up last month).  The word international implies that you can go to all sorts of exotic, international destinations.  And you can go to some destinations.  And even exotic ones (okay maybe Urumqi isn’t that exotic).  But you certainly can’t go to all the international destinations.  Want to go to Moscow, Istanbul, Khujand, St. Petersburg, Bishkek, Urumqi, Almaty, Novosibirsk (me either), Tehran, Dehli, or Frankfurt?  That’s great because you can go there via direct flight!  But, not every day of the week.  If you want to go to Frankfurt, your choices are Saturday or… Saturday.  Because that flight’s only once a week.  Moscow has daily flights, but who wants to go to Moscow?  Dubai has a whopping three flights a week (oh the choices!) and Istanbul and two or three, depending on the whims of Turkish Air.  So spontaneous travel is less of an option.  You could drive to Uzbekistan, but not on a whim because, visas.  Same for Afghanistan.  So if you’re an avid weekend traveler, Dushanbe is not the place for you.

This year we got a little more spontaneous that usual.  I booked our tickets way, way back in March after years and years of scrambling for tickets a day or two before our 30-hour ordeals.  I felt so smug, so clever, so forward thinking.  Then, twelve days before our departure, that whole coup-thing happened in Turkey.  And suddenly all of those plans didn’t matter because we weren’t going to be flying through Turkey anymore and the other choice was Frankfurt and it was Monday and our only option - Saturday - was only five days away.  So, last minute scramble and tickets showed up the day before traveling, again.  Planning ahead never accounts for those pesky coups.

Then, of course, there is what time the flights occur.  We had friends visit last fall and were absolutely floored that their flight left at twelve o’clock.  Like in the middle of the day.  When it’s light outside.  Because pretty much every other flight that takes you somewhere else leaves at three in the morning.  Or five.  When we left for our R&R in July, our ride picked us up at 12:30 AM.  If you think a day of international travel is bad, try it on a two-hour nap (if you’re lucky).

Then there are the connections.  Oh, the connections.  Last year we spent 6 hours in Frankfurt going and 7 coming.  This year we spent 8 hours coming and eleven hours coming.  Our original flights, before that coup thing happened, we only had a six hour layover in Toronto.  Which compared to eleven isn’t so bad.  We just got permission to fly direct from Istanbul (allowed again) to DC and I was oh so excited to not have six hours in Toronto, but instead it was six hours in Istanbul (Dante left a circle out).  Don’t want six hours in an airport?  Well then it will be four flights instead of a measly three.  No matter which way you slice it, there is no way to get from Dushanbe to the east coast (I really feel for the west coasters) in less than 24 hours.  And that’s on a two-hour nap.

And then there’s the return trip, which really is the most worst part of all.  Because not only is it long, but you don’t even have a vacation to look forward to at the end of it all.  Just unpacking and trying to find something, anything to eat in your bare empty kitchen.

Friday morning we had family pictures.  Sunday morning everyone stumbled off the airplane in Dushanbe in the exact same clothes – because they had been wearing them since Friday.  After taking pictures Friday morning we packed suitcases and headed to the airport in Springfield, Missouri.  We checked in (oh how wonderful it is to check in at a small regional airport) and got on a flight to Chicago.  Friday night we went to sleep (or went unconscious, or watched movies) on our way out of Chicago.  Saturday morning we woke up in Frankfurt where we spent the day.  Saturday night we went to sleep (or whatever) on another airplane and woke up Sunday morning in Dushanbe, at 2:30 AM.  It really sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

And then, to finish it off, there is the jet lag.  Oh, the jet lag.  First you have to deal with the day you land.  All you want to do in the entire world is go to sleep.  Because you haven’t been horizontal in three days.  But you can’t.  Maybe you can take a nap, but only a nap because when nine o’clock rolls around you want to be able to go to bed.  Staying up late only prolongs the agony; the only way to get over jet lag is to actually get out of bed the next morning.  So the first day is spent wandering around the house like a zombie trying to break up fights and making abortive attempts to unpack the suitcases that exploded right inside your front door when everyone was looking for toothbrushes (because fuzzy teeth) and clean clothes and whatever else is suddenly pressing at 4:30 in the morning when you finally get to your house after two hours of passport control and customs and the endless, endless, endless wait for bags. 

And then finally, finally, after that endless days that finishes with scrounging something for dinner (frozen beans and toast.  Definitely dinner) and wrestling children into pajamas, you can go to sleep for your first full night’s sleep in days.  There’s nothing more beautiful than your own, soft, not lumpy not flat, pillow in your very own room with your very own bed.

Which is the very same bed you will wake up in around 1:30 and turn and roll and stare at the ceiling because there is no way possible you can actually sleep.  Your body is exhausted, your mind is screaming for oblivion, you know that in the morning will be work and children and responsibility so you would possibly sell your first-born child for sleep if you could only find the person who would buy them, but they’re nowhere to be found.  They're probably asleep.  So instead you stare at the ceiling some more.  Or the wall.  Or read a book.  Or count sheep.  And finally, finally you fall asleep.  Then your alarm goes off five minutes later.

Then it happens the next night.  And the next.  And maybe even one more.  Until you realize that sleep is an illusion and it will never come and you are doomed to spend your days roaming the earth as a sleepless zombie but that’s okay because you’re really fine and falling asleep in thirty seconds while reading a story to your child is completely normal.

And then, the nightmare is over.  You sleep.  Your suitcases get unpacked.  Dinners get cooked.  Children are enjoyable.  Spouses are not trying to ruin your life.  And life seems possible again.  The nightmare is over. 

Until next time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

And We're Back!

Right now there is a pile of clothes sitting outside my door.  But every other sign of our 4:30 AM arrival back in Dushanbe is neatly put away (thank you, Brandon and the children).  I almost feel like I haven't been run over by a truck lately, and the children even got bathed today.  I'm toying with the idea of exercising tomorrow, but I'm making no promises until I get that magical first full night of sleep.

It looks like it's almost time for life to resume.

We had a fun, lazy summer with lots of pool time, minimal dinners (hummus and vegetables: not just for appetizers any more), and not much school.  Everyone enjoyed having some time off from the daily grind.

We wrapped up summer with a three-week trip to the U.S. (perhaps more on that later) where the I got to spend time with my entire family for the first time in seven years.  The children met second-cousins they didn't know they had and I caught up with cousins and cousins and cousins.  Edwin got to see dinosaur skeletons, the girls went canoeing with their grandfather, and I got Krispy Kremes.

We also visited Brandon's parents in Missouri where Eleanor was introduced to the most entertaining pastime of feeding cows corn shucks (sadly, no pictures), we went to the movies, and almost everyone got their eyes checked.

And then we made the endless trek back to Dushanbe.  I always wonder how I'll be able to leave the land of my nativity and rare delights like parking lots and municipal pools to go back to the daily schedule and isolation.  But by the end of three days of traveling, I'm just happy to be anywhere that isn't an airplane.

Summer's over, time for real life to resume.  Wish me luck!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sick Week

This morning I woke up and felt almost fine.  Yes, there was the ghost of a headache and my legs ached and some bloating was still hanging around, but I was hungry.  I hadn't been hungry in a week.

There's some extra joy that comes with homestays, we've discovered - it's all the illness that you bring back.

Brandon fell first and fell swiftly, taking to his bed about an hour after we got home.  He stayed near the bathroom the whole day after we got back while the children and I happily went and picked a friend's apples.  Joseph, who had a fever, stayed with him.  We all stayed healthy enough (at least the useful ones) to make twenty-seven quarts of applesauce the day after, which was good because I needed all the help I could get.

But then each of the children fell ill, some with fevers, some with intestinal issues, some with vomiting.  I started my own descent on Sunday night with excruciating back pains and my own fever and spent the next week in and out of bed.

By Friday when Eleanor and I both had mysterious rashes and she hadn't had a solid bowel movement for a week, I called uncle and visited the med unit.  And for fun, we hauled Edwin along (who had thrown up while I was on the phone scheduling an appointment).  Of course, nothing diagnosable was found and so the usual regimen of rest and bland diet with lots of fluids was prescribed.

I haven't cooked dinner in a week (which isn't such a bad thing, considering), and everyone else has been eating a whole lot of cold cereal - in between eating nothing at all.  It's a good thing we finished school before we left on our trip because there was a whole lot of nothing getting done while everyone was taking turns being on their bed of pain.

We did crawl out of bed to celebrate Brandon's birthday on Thursday and then crawl right back in to sleep it off on Friday.  The pool opened on Saturday, but none of us were there to see it (or the soft opening the week before) because there were too many germs floating around to be considered safe for public appearances.

But now (fingers crossed), we're over it and life can resume.  Eleanor still has a lingering rash that went suspiciously bumpy today, but that's nothing a good throat swab can't diagnose.

But next time we're tempted to go and stay in a little mountain village and eat food undoubtedly washed in little mountain streams served on dishes washed in the same place, I'll remember this week.  And then camping will sound pretty good to me.  Hot dogs, after all, are roasted over fires.  Get them hot enough and everything will be dead.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Hiking and hiking and hiking and hiking and hiking and hiking

When I booked our homestay, I mentioned that we would like to rent some donkeys for hiking.  The girls have been dying to go donkey hiking ever since I made the mistake of speculating out loud that we could probably rent some donkeys from the local and let the poor things do all the work while the children rode in style.

So the evening we arrived, the host asked Brandon if we would still like to rent those donkeys.  We arranged for two and agreed that a picnic would a nice idea too.  I figured we'd hike up to somewhere nice for a picnic and head back to the homestay to relax.  Sounded like a good idea to me.

The next morning after breakfast, the donkeys were ready and waiting for our 9 am departure.  The girls were, of course, thrilled.  I was happy to not hear any complaining about hiking.  I like hiking, but the children don't.  

We started our hike at the top of the fourth lake and hiked along the river that came from the fifth lake, winding through a pleasant little valley and town.  I'm constantly amazed by how much green can be achieved by digging a few hundred little irrigation ditches that wind through any arable land.  

The fifth lake wasn't particularly big and we circled it pretty quickly and headed up the slope to the sixth lake.  There is pleasant hiking - winding through mountain valleys and passes, with some elevation gain but not too much at once.  And then there's unpleasant hiking - just going straight up.  I remember looking at the top of a particular slope and thinking that when got to the top, we'd be at the sixth lake.  Instead it was another valley and more unpleasant switchbacks.

The weather had started out pleasantly sunny, and we worried about everyone getting too hot.  Then weather blew in and everyone was freezing.  Sophia's lips were blue and we had to stop in someone's house for a few minutes until the worst of the blowing wind and rain had stopped.  We thought we'd have to turn back, but our guide knew the weather better than we did, and we just kept going.

We hiked around the edge of the whole sixth lake.  The lakes fill up each summer as the glaciers melt and then empty each winter as the glaciers stop melting and start freezing.  We were able to cut across the top of the sixth lake where the lake hadn't filled up yet.  According to Jumaboy, the lake still had about 20 meters left until it was full.

We walked through the little village at the head of the lake and then stopped for lunch.  The spot was beautiful and green, and if you're a local, provided plenty of drinking water from streams running down the middle of the road.

At this point Jumaboy assured us that we only had three kilometers left until we reached the seventh and final lake.  I hadn't exactly planned on going all the way to the seventh lake, but we were almost there so we pressed on.

It was at this point that I realized several things: 1. Altitude makes a difference.  We live at 2,300 ft in Dushabe.  Our hike had reached about 7,000 feet by this point and would finish around 8,000.  2. I still hadn't recovered from months of hypo.  3. I was pathetic compared to our local guide and his son - who was hiking in sandals.  We spent three kilometers hiking up a 10% grade and it was rough, some of the hardest hiking I'd ever done.  Also, hiking on rocks and gravel is no good.  Where's a nice soft forest path when you need one?

At the top there was a lake.

And an Edwin posing as a dinosaur.

And all of us.  Eleanor and Brandon were both soaked in sweat.

And our guide.  He re-spread the picnic and everyone ate and enjoyed the sunshine and shivered when the sun went behind clouds.  Because of the geography around the lake it was very windy and quite cool - about sixty degrees.  I imagine it's quite nice at the height of summer.  The lake was, of course, beautiful.  The beautiful things are always the ones that it's an unholy pain to get to.

And then we hiked down.  Every single time I hike, the whole up trip is spent anticipating the down trip.  Then of course the down trip is painful in it's own new, different kind of way.  But at least you're not horribly out of breath.  So that's good.  By the time we got back to the homestay, everyone was quite ready for dinner on the tapchan and then bed (after a reasonably scary shower that involved flip flops).

When we made our way back to Dushanbe, I mapped out our route and was floored to realized we had hiked fourteen miles.  I've never hiked - let alone walked or run (no half marathons for me, thanks) - that much in my entire life.  And Brandon did it with twenty-five pounds of Eleanor on his back and ten pounds of my backpack on his front (thanks, sweetie).  Of course now in retrospect, it's wonderful to have seen everything, but by the end I was bone tired.

So, moral of the story: If you ever go to Seven Lakes, drive to the sixth lake, park your car, and then hike the last 3 kilometers to the seventh lake.  You'll still see all the lakes, even if it's by a car.  Trust me, everyone will be happier that way.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Seven Lakes

Originally we were going to Moscow.  We had the plane tickets all but booked, the dates blocked off for work, the the visa paperwork printed out.  Then it turned out that the children's tourist passports had expired.  And then Joseph and I had to go to London.  So we didn't go to Moscow.  But Brandon still had the week off (and when you have the week off work, you don't go in to work), so instead we traveled in Tajikistan.

We've done some hiking and traveled outside Tajikistan, but hadn't yet gone for anything but a camping trip an hour outside Dushanbe.  This is mostly because Tajikistan is absolutely not set up for tourism.  There are few specific things you can spend a whole lot of money to come and do - game hunting and trekking - but there's nothing family friendly (and under $30,000).  No nice little resorts are hidden in the mountains, offering a few days' refreshment from the city, nothing that you can book online and be sure where it is actually located and that it had western-style toilets. 

So instead we decided to go adventuring.

Brandon hates adventuring.

But he is a tolerant husband, so we went adventuring.  There is a region up in the mountains (pretty much everything in this country is up in the mountains) called Seven Lakes, a series of glacial lakes formed by a series of rockfall dams.  I had heard that it was one of the most beautiful things in Tajikistan to see, so we decided to go.  But first we had to get there.

According to my best measuring on Google Maps (it had to be guessing because where we were going was just a point with no recorded roads [there are roads, but Google Maps doesn't acknowledge them] that led there), the trip was about 150 miles.  In America on good roads this would take about two and half hours.  I calculated that, with an average of 40 mph on the paved stretches (most of the trip) and 20 mph on the unpaved stretch (the last 20 miles), it would take 4 1/2 hours.  It ended up taking six.

Between sheep-moving season, the unlit 5-km tunnel of death, switchbacks up and down very high mountains (with no guardrails), rockfalls on the road, Eleanor losing her breakfast, a random drunk guy wanting a ride, local women who did get a ride, and a few fords, our average speed was more like 25 mph.  Such is the Tajik road trip.

We stopped for lunch along the first lake.  This is the last lake if you're coming down from the mountain, and it was absolutely crystal clear.

So of course we washed out Eleanor's egg-covered dress (additional clothes were in our bags wrapped up in two sets up garbage bags bungee corded next to our jerry-can of gas on our carrier rack.  You know you're traveling when you take jerry cans and a satellite phone) in the lake.  Because we're classy like that.

We enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch and (of course) rock throwing.  Rock throwing - it never gets old.

Then we kept driving, up the face of the rock dam that you can see behind Sophia.  At this point, I really started not being Brandon's friend.  And it only continued.  

There's nothing like having a rock on one side and a very deep lake on the other to make you drive very, very slowly.  By the time we got to the little village lying near the head of lake number four, Brandon and I were both very happy to be done with driving for a few days.

It took some asking to find the homestay (some signs with arrows and words on them would be helpful), but we eventually got there.  It was a pleasant little compound, surprisingly green after the rocky rockiness of the lake, with lots of trees growing around.

My, and Brandon's, favorite part was the tapchan, where we ate all our meals.  There is something incredibly luxurious about lounging on a tapchan in perfect weather while somebody else cooks your food.  I would like to do this on a much more regular basis.  I think it would increase the quality of my life significantly.

The rooms weren't too bad, considering.  We had two rooms, one with four beds and the other with three.  Which worked out perfectly, as the walls were thick enough for us to ignore the children when they woke up with the early sunrise.  The beds weren't too uncomfortable, considering, and it was nice to have a thick blanket during the cool mountain nights.

The bathroom was, as expected, a squatty.  We were very happy to find, however, that it was a flushing squatty.  I didn't know there was a hierarchy to squat toilets until I moved to Tajikistan.  If you don't like the flushing kind, you don't even want to think of using a non-flushing squatty, also known as a hole in the ground.  Curious to see how the squatty got its water supply, I followed the water line up a hill behind the outhouse and found a cistern that was filled by an irrigation ditch.  Handy, those irrigation ditches.

The owner, known as Jumaboy, was very hospitable, and the children enjoyed watching his wife cook plov in the special wood-fired plov cooking stove.  One of his grandchildren was about Eleanor's age and both girls enjoyed watching the other, strange child who acted so oddly.  All of the children enjoyed petting the resident dog.  It was, despite my reservations about homestays, actually pretty pleasant.  It wasn't the Ritz, but nobody's looking for the Ritz when they go up to a mountain village in Tajikistan.

And I'm pretty sure there's nothing like this near the Ritz.