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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Living in Dushanbe: Winter Travel

Tajikistan is the most mountainous country in the world.  I've always been fond of superlatives, and so it's kind of cool to say that I live in the most mountainous country in the world.  According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source, I know), "93% of Tajikistan is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 300 m (980 ft) to almost 7,500 m (24,600 ft), and nearly 50% of Tajikistan's territory is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft)."

The mountains in Tajikistan are in three major chains, and those chains divide the country into three different regions.  If you want to go from one region to another, there's only one reliable way to get there: driving.  There aren't any train tracks that cross the mountains.  There is a flight that goes to Khujand, in the north, but it operates fairly unreliably, only flying when there are enough passengers to fill the flight.  If you want to go east to the Pamirs, a foundation owns a helicopter, but it is reportedly grounded because it can't be repaired.  

This past summer, Brandon was contacted by some visitors that wanted to check on a few sites where they were funding work.  They passed along their itinerary to Brandon who just about died laughing when he saw it.  One project was in Bukhara, a twelve-hour drive from Dushanbe, and the next was in the Pamirs, a two- or three-day drive from Dushanbe.  Listed was, "July 10, travel from Bukhara to Khorog."  He helpfully informed them that they might want to include a little more time for that leg of their travel. 

Tajikistan, in addition to being mountainous, also has some mostly very bad roads.  There are 'highways' that go throughout the country, but you don't have to go very far (in some cases about ten feet) before the pavement turns into dirt/gravel/formerly pavement but now mostly potholed roads.  And even the highways can be treacherous.  A few years ago we met a traveling photographer who had visited, at that time 158 countries.  He had traveled to the Pamirs on the 'highway' - the only paved road in the region - and declared it to be the absolute worst highway he had ever ridden on.  Last year some non-US diplomats died when their car went over the side of the same highway.

Driving in Tajikistan is not for the faint-hearted.  But when you get winter involved, sometimes it's just not for anybody at all.  

Khujand, in the north, is the second major city after Dushanbe and so there is a lot of embassy travel to visit with various contacts.  Recently Brandon was put in charge of arranging a trip to go up for a visit.  I like to check the weather and when I noticed the forecast, I showed Brandon.  "It says that there is supposed to be rain in Dushanbe for the three days of your trip.  Do you think it will snow up in the mountains?"  He checked the forecast, and it was calling for over a foot of snow over three days.

Driving up over the pass isn't really an exercise for the faint-hearted - the grade gets pretty steep and there aren't any guard rails between the edge and thousand-foot drops.  Add in an endless progression of slowly climbing tractor-trailers (the only way to get goods from the north to the south and vice versa as there aren't any trains) with insane Tajiks passing on blind curves and it is a ride that will keep you awake no matter how sleepy you are.  

Brandon went online checked with the Tajik road service.  They warned everyone of the impending snow storm and recommended that nobody try and get to Khujand for the next several days.  He checked with the Tajiks who worked at the embassy.  "Khujand?" they asked him, "We don't really think that's a good idea right now.  It is winter, after all.  Why don't you try in the spring?"

And then he visited with the embassy drivers.  One driver regaled him with tales of trying to get to Khujand in the snow.  "See, what happens is someone gets impatient with the trucks and tries to pass them.  But then they meet cars in the other lane and everyone get snarled up and it takes forever to get it sorted out.  One time we waited in the snow for six hours for the traffic to finally clear out so we could get over the pass.  Another time we waited for three or four hours before giving up and turning around.  I had been passing time with a guy who was taking some people up to Khujand, so I gave him my phone number and told him to give me a call when he finally got there.  He called me the next morning, sixteen hours after I turned around.  So, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather just stay here.  Have you thought about going in the spring?"

In the middle of these conversations, I reminded Brandon of the last time he went to Khujand in February.  He made it safely back to Dushanbe, only a few hours before several avalanches trapped people on the road for days.  We saw the remains of one of the avalanches four months later in May, and the snow was still ten feet deep over the river.  Had he perhaps thought about going in the spring?

By this point, Brandon decided that perhaps spring might be a better idea.  He talked with colleagues and they called off the trip.

We enjoyed three days of rain in Dushanbe, the most precipitation we've had all fall and winter.  Thursday evening, he came home from work.  "So, it's a good thing that we didn't go up to Khujand.  It snowed buckets up in the mountains and this afternoon there was an avalanche on the road up to the pass.  The entire road is shut down until they get it cleared out."

It sounds like spring indeed is a fine time to travel north.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Late Night Paperwork Party

Working for the US Government is not for those who hate paperwork.  Since everything the government does is funded by public taxpayer money, everything that costs money has to be documented.  When William was born last year, before we could go get home we had to 1. fill out form OF-126 2. get a birth certificate 3. Apply for a diplomatic passport 4. Apply for a Tajik visa, 5. Set up a layette shipment, and finally, 6. book plane tickets.  This of course, had nothing to do with the insurance paperwork, which was actually less paperwork.  

After we got home, I got to file a voucher for our covered expenses from the last three months, which included scanning in all of the receipts, inputting the expenses, listing the lodging for ninety days ($0, typed in ninety times), figuring out M&IE for seven people (that took some calculating) for two different locations, and then telling the money where to go.  After that it only took five or six different adjustments to the voucher and accompanying email exchanges before the money finally made it to our bank account - when William was seven months old.  

Brandon has a severe dislike for paperwork, and so when we discovered a few years ago that I could do the vouchering for him, it was a minor miracle.  I had been bothering him for nine months to voucher Joseph's trip to London (cost: about $6000) and he could never get around to it.  

So, paperwork.  There's nothing that gets done in the US Government without a stack of paperwork filled before it's done and another after it's done.

Two or three months ago I started putting together our itinerary for our upcoming home leave, training, and departure for Tashkent.  Unlike Brandon, I adore putting together a schedule and so wanted to get everything nailed down as soon as humanly possible.  Our plane schedules (with the exception of last summer) always end up being strange and so I like to get the tickets booked sooner when they're cheaper.  Also, we always end up on small flights for our last leg and sometimes they don't have eight free seats on a flight with only twenty or so people.  

I checked with my mom, I checked with our friends in London, I checked with Brandon's mom, and I checked with the travel office.  Everything was in complete harmony and I was ready to get those tickets bought.  

But then, of course, I ran into the inevitable snag, also known as Forms I Cannot Fill Out Myself.  There are a lot of forms that I can download off the internet, electronically sign for Brandon, and send in myself.  I like those forms.  They allow me to get my job done without asking my poor overworked husband who is doing a lot of jobs right now to do one more thing extra.  I hate asking him to do those things because then I become just one more nagger instead of the one person who isn't asking him for something.

Unfortunately for my plane tickets, not only was this form not only one I couldn't get off the internet, it wasn't even one that Brandon could print off and bring home.  It was an entire system that could only be accessed from the State department intranet.  

So I just asked.  And then asked.  And asked and asked and asked.  But meanwhile the government shut down, Brandon had to fill in for an absent TDYer, there were cables to write, meetings to attend, and reports to write about the meetings he attended.  I'm really wondering where those lazy government workers are so that Brandon can get at job there instead of working ten- or twelve- hour days for State.  

So one night last week we were drinking hot chocolate.  Often after the children go to bed we will have a treat together because we're adults and we can do that.  While sipping our hot chocolate, I was asking Brandon about how progress on the TM2 was going.  "Well," he started encouragingly, "I opened it up today.  But then I realized that I didn't have our itinerary so I couldn't fill it out."

I reminded him of the itinerary I had sent him a month ago, but he said that it was incomplete.  I asked him if I could come to work with him one day and fill it out, but he said that I wasn't allowed in his office because I don't have a clearance.  I asked him if we could work at it on another computer.

He looked at me for a minute, looked at the clock, and then announced, "Let's go do it right now."

I looked at the clock - it was nine thirty, which is just about our bed time.  I thought about waking up at five the next morning and thought about how nice going to bed would be.  I thought about how cold and dark it was outside and how far away the embassy is.  I thought about going to bed much later than ten.  I thought about having to do school and make doughnuts on a lot less sleep than I prefer.  Then I thought about plane tickets ands schedules and certainty.  I looked back at him.  "Okay.  Let's go."

We quickly finished our chocolate, shook Kathleen and Sophia awake, and told them we were going to the embassy.  They seemed to have a vague idea of what we were talking about, so we left the phone by Sophia, threw on our coats, and went for a late-night drive.

I'm sure the Marine on duty was a little curious about why we were both signing in at ten o'clock at night, but I'm also sure that he's seen his fair share of strange goings on.

Brandon has been the acting consular chief since August, so we headed to the consular section, which I am cleared to go into.  He fired up the computer, put on some music, and we started filling out forms.  

"When are we leaving Dushanbe?" 

"May seventh."

"How many days are we spending in London?"

"Five.  But only one of those counts as a rest stop.  The other four days will be annual leave."

"Where are we sending UAB to?"

"DC and Tashkent."

After an hour we had filled out all the boxes in a way that the system decided was okay, figured out how to add Kathleen back to Brandon's orders (there are only five boxes on the form that lists dependents, so when we added William, Kathleen fell off.  Which is ridiculous because I know we are not the only people in the foreign service with more than five children), found and entered all of Brandon's training classes, and finished the itinerary with our flight to Tashkent.

As we clicked the last box and hit submit, I did a happy dance around the room.  Brandon looked like he wanted to die.  I turned to him, "Don't you just feel great?  I love getting those forms filled out! It's such a feeling of accomplishment!  One more dragon slain!  Hooray for our side!!"

He looked at me.  "No.  I just want to throw the computer out the window.  But the glass is bulletproof, so I can't.  Maybe I can just kick it to pieces instead.  I.  Hate.  Paperwork."

Every now and then, I have moments in my marriage when I realize that I have married someone who is so very different from me.  We have a whole lot of compatibilities, but sometimes I stumble upon an unexpected difference.  This was one of those times.

I shrugged, smiled at him, and gave him a kiss.  "Good thing you married me, then.  Any more paperwork you want me to do?"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Filling Out All the Forms

Recently our Tajik visas expired.  Since we still have a few months left in Dushanbe, we had to get new visas.  When we had to extend our visas the previous two times (yes, I will have three Tajik visas in my passport.  How many Tajik visas do you have in your passport??  All the glamorous places I get to visit...), we handed the forms to HR and they submitted them to the Tajik government.  Evidently the procedure has changed because this time I had the pleasure of submitting them all online. 

The procedure goes something like this: fill in about twenty-five drop-down boxes.  Every two boxes causes more boxes to appear, and fill in those too.  Go to the next window and fill in all of the relevant information by hand.  Then, after that is done, upload about fifteen different documents that you had to scan (some will get randomly rejected because they are too big, even though they are the same size as everything else).  Then you're done! 

That doesn't sound too bad, does it?

Now try doing it eight times.  By the end you will be ready to drop-kick the computer out the window.  I promise.

This is what my life is filled with - forms times eight.  When we flew to Dubai, we purchased one-way tickets on two different airlines.  This means that I got to fill out names, birthdays, gender, country of citizenship, phone numbers, and passport information for eight people, twice.  And, as an added bonus I got to do it all over again when my credit card didn't go through. 

Let's talk about doctor visits.  The last time I took the children to the dentist I spent almost the entire visit filling out forms.  And because we seem to use a different dentist every time we go back to the States, I get to do this every single time.  With every single provider - eye doctor, pediatrician, specialists, you name it.  I wish they had universal forms that I could just keep a big old stack of and hand out like candy.  This past year I finally managed to memorize our insurance ID numbers and then they changed providers on us in January.  Sigh. 

Every time we book tickets with the travel office I get to write down everyone's birthdays and United Mileage plus numbers.  After awhile I got smart, and just saved them to a document so I can copy and paste them. 

I don't want to even think about renewing our diplomatic passports next year.  Last time Brandon and I split the forms up and we raced.  I beat him by three forms.  Amateur.

My favorite is when the forms don't have enough spaces to list all of the family members.  I've used various methods in the past - write names in the margins, write them on the back, staple another sheet - but have settled on squeezing two names in one box.  Who is this male/female Joseph Henderson Sherwood Eleanor Sherwood who was born in two different years???

Sometimes I get the names and birthdays mixed up - was Sophia or Eleanor born the 18th? - and then have to start all over again.  But I'm in good company because Kathleen's most recent Tajik visa has Sophia's picture on it and Sophia's has no picture at all.  After awhile one little blonde girl does look a lot like another and there are just so many of them! I guess the passport agents in the Dushanbe airport figure they're all probably ours because who voluntarily smuggles six children into Tajikistan??

It's also fun keeping track of the documentation that comes with eight people.  Our family has gotten so large that we can no longer purchase tickets under one record locator - evidently the limit is six people and we blew past that almost four years ago.  So when we show up to check in at the airport and hand over the reams of documentation (I always print double sided to save a forest or two), we always have to explain to the very confused agents why only some of the people are listed.  Theoretically having eight people means that we can take sixteen bags when we fly, but I've never been brave enough to attempt it.  I'm not sure how we'd get that many bags to the airport.  Rent a U-Haul?

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to pull out the Chunk of Passports.  Have you ever seen a stack of eight passports?  How about one that has sixteen passports?  I feel like an elite member of the world-traveler class when I pull out that stack and then watch the passport control agent's eyes widen in shock and awe.  It was almost birthing six children just to get that reaction.  Almost.

I suppose I should be proud of my elite status form-filling and document-managing skills, but I'm not quite sure how useful they'll be when my household eventually gets back down to manageable size (not that it will happen for awhile yet).  Maybe I can volunteer my services somewhere.  I'm sure someone has need of a woman who can wield a pen like a master.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Happy Birthday, William!

William turned one this week.  I remember Kathleen's first birthday and how incredibly long one year felt - at least a decade had passed between her birth and finally achieving that first birthday.  Whenever someone would look at my little babies and sigh, "Oh, they just grow up so fast!" I would nod head enthusiastically and reply, "And it's a good thing, too!"

But when William turned one this week, I could hardly believe it.  Wasn't he just a little squishy baby that cried a lot? (Okay, I don't miss that part) Or if not a little squishy baby, just a small baby?  It feels like five or six months have gone by, not an entire year.  The strangest thing was when I got him up the day after his birthday and realized that he was going to stay one for an entire year instead of reverting back to baby the next day.

Since William is our sixth child and our sixth first birthday, it wasn't very celebratory.  I do some aspects of mothering pretty well- reading stories every night, keeping the house running, teaching my children responsibility - but I'm not very good at birthdays.  Especially when the birthday celebrant isn't aware of what a birthday actually is.  I didn't even buy him a present.  When we're already lugging hundreds of pounds of toys (I think 160), the last thing we need is more toys for a child whose favorite source of toys is the trash can.

I did bake cupcakes and hand them out after church this morning in exchange for a rousing round of "Happy Birthday." Then when William is in therapy he has one less things to use as ammunition against us for being bad parents. "On my first birthday my parents did nothing.  They didn't even make me a cake."

I can say, however, that we are very happy to have William in our family.  He is most certainly the family mascot and completely beloved by all his siblings (at least when he's not crying).  I love when we are all sitting around the table and William is babbling happily while everyone stares on with adoring eyes.  Yesterday he was practicing - not very successfully - walking to people, his siblings were kicking each other over to be the one that William walked to next.  Often after breakfast Sophia or Edwin will spirit him away to go and play with him before school, and in the afternoon the children beg to wake him up from his nap so that they can play together.  He definitely is not lacking for love or attention.

I still can't believe that it's been a year, but I guess that's the way life goes.  Happy Birthday, William!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Week When Everything Broke

The former Soviet Union is not an area of the world known for its high construction standards.  It wasn't great when the Soviets were in charge and it hasn't gotten much better in the decades following.  At one point, all of the embassy residences got inspected for earthquake safety, and not a single house passed the inspection.  Our house, new in late 2014, has numerous large cracks in the walls and a set of balcony doors doesn't close quite right because the walls have settled and the doorway has gone out of square.  It's a major miracle that most of the bridges up in the mountains haven't collapsed, and I'm pretty sure that a building inspector hasn't set foot in most of the villages either.

So, stuff breaks here.  A lot.  We have personally broken five toilet seats during our three years here.  One broke while Eleanor was using it, and she came to me sobbing, trying to explain that she hadn't done anything to break it - she was just sitting on it!  A few years ago our outside water meter broke when it got below freezing and it took five months to get it replaced.  About a quarter of the tiles in our downstairs bathrooms have popped off and had to be re-stuck.  I don't know how many times the shower head hoses in the bathrooms have had to be replaced; they probably should be put on a six-month replacement schedule.  About a third of the lights in the house don't work because the wiring just broke.  Every time someone comes to replace the bulbs (they're difficult to change), they dutifully put new bulbs in the broken lights and then figure they've done the job.

Usually something breaks every couple of weeks and I save them up for a monthly or bi-monthly work order party when everything gets done at once.  So it's not like everything is happening at once, but it is a definite slow, annoying trickle.

That is, until last week. 

It all started with the power.  The power in our house is terrible and has been terrible since the day we moved in.  We have put in untold work orders and the landlord has tried myriad fixes, but nothing has ever worked quite right.  We usually have enough power to get our normal day work done.  But if it's a cold day and I'm trying to cook dinner, microwave food, and dry clothes at the same time, the load is too much for the power supply and the generator turns on, which turns everything off.  Then it turns off because suddenly the load is fine because nothing is running.  This is something that I will definitely not miss when we leave.

Recently it has been getting worse and randomly turning on, turning off, turning on, turning off, turning on, and turning off for fifteen or twenty cycles.  Every time the generator turns on, everything in the house turns off and when the generator turns off, once again we have a few seconds of darkness.  One day it took ten minutes to microwave my lunch because of this.  Finally, after a few weeks, I called facilities maintenance (FM) and told them to come take a look.  They came, took a look, turned on our generator, and left. 

Now, a whole house generator is very nice but it is also very, very noisy, especially when it's in a high-walled concrete courtyard. After awhile it gets on your nerves, but we had no idea when it would be turned off again.  One rule that we were impressed with: never ever touch the generator.  It has power going through it, very dangerous.

I figured, however, that while the generator was running, I would take advantage of a reliable power supply and warm the house up.  This all happened after it snowed and got down into the teens for several nights in a row and so our house had gotten cold.  The radiators in our house keep it quite comfy when it is between forty and fifty-five degrees outside, anything below gets increasingly chilly and anything above gets too hot.  I long for the day when I will have central heat.

In addition to our radiators, we also have split-pack heat pumps that work as AC units and heaters.  But because of our bad power, we haven't been able to run them as heaters.  So I turned one on in my room (sixty-six degrees!), the study (sixty-three degrees), and two on the third floor where I was teaching school (sixty-two degrees).  I should have stopped when one of the circuit breakers flipped and the generator let out an ominous cough of black smoke, but I didn't.  I just reset the circuit and went back to turning my house into somewhere that didn't need a wool cardigan and a down jacket to keep warm in. 

A few minutes later, everything went dead.  The generator stopped and there was no power coming in from the city line.  So, I called FM (their number is on speed dial) and they assured me someone would be coming.

When I went outside to let them in, I noticed water spraying from our outside water meter.  The face of the water meter is glass (why they don't use plastic I can't figure out), and it had cracked during the below-freezing temperatures of the previous few days.  So, while they were fixing the generator, they turned off our outside water.  Again.

Later that day I noticed ceramic shards around our outside sink.  The same freezing temperatures that had done in our water meter had also taken out the sink.  Oh goody.

When Brandon came home from work the next day, he informed me that the 'check engine' light was on in the car.  He took it in and the mechanic told him that we needed new oxygen sensors. 

The same day I noticed that our distiller had stopped working and called my FM buddies, for the fifth time that week.

We have to pay our internet monthly, in cash, and this month it ran out eight days early.  When we finally reached the glorious day when we would have a whole new sixty gigs to consume the outside world with, nothing happened.  Brandon talked to someone at work who talked to the internet company who then (amazingly) fixed the problem.  I also daydream about things like Google Fiber.

Thursday morning, while I was teaching school, Kathleen started complaining of dizziness.  I told her to go and get a drink of water and something to eat.  She did, came back up, and started feeling dizzy again.  A minute or two later I started feeling dizzy and Edwin did too.  We all beat a hasty retreat down from the third floor and I called FM for the tenth time that week.  They came, turned off the generator - which had been running for over two days - and tested the air to make sure everything was okay.  It was.

And then, to wrap up the week, we had an earthquake.  It wasn't much of an earthquake - 6.1 a few hundred miles away - and I didn't believe Joseph when he told me the table was shaking.  But, it was a fitting end to a somewhat crazy week.  Fingers crossed that this week will be better.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sledding Saturday

This year has been a bad year for snow in Tajikistan and so we've only gone sledding once, up at the ski resort.  This past week it snowed three or four inches on Monday.  And then Friday night, without much warning, it snowed again.  We didn't get much here in Dushanbe (it was mostly rain which is fine with me), but I knew that there would be a lot of snow in the mountains.  Time to go sledding.

The only problem was that there was a high level visitor in town and Brandon had to be a note-taker at several meetings.  I asked him if we could squeeze in a quick trip before his meetings, but he said that he didn't want to get stuck and then explain to everyone why he wasn't there for the meetings.  Jobs can get really tiresome sometimes, especially when they happen on the first snowy Saturday of the year.

But, in a completely uncharacteristic twist, he told us that we were free to go without him.  I was pretty shocked, but took him up on the offer. 

When we made it to our hill, the snow was perfectly pristine with four or five inches of fresh powder on top of the snow that had fallen earlier this week.  I'm not a big winter fan, but I do love going up in the mountains for some beautiful fresh snow on a clear, mostly sunny day.  

After two and a half hours of sledding, the snow was nothing like pristine, but the sled runs had gotten nicely packed down and pretty dang fast.  We brought up a half-gallon of hot herbal tea (the former Soviet Union is getting to us) and everyone enjoyed sledding and drinking tea and sledding some more.  William, in characteristic baby fashion, wanted absolutely nothing to do with that weird cold white stuff and stayed on my lap or strapped to my front the entire time.

I'm hoping that we can get a few more sledding Saturdays in before winter comes to an end, and next time Brandon will be able to come along.  Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Living in Dushanbe: Entertainment

There are a lot of things about Dushanbe that aren't the greatest.  There's a good reason it's a thirty percent differential.  It's a colossal pain to get here, the medical care is practically nonexistent, the air can get pretty unpleasantly thick in the winter, the driving is completely nonsensical, and you can't see Star Wars in English in the theater.  This last one was such a hardship that a friend took her son up to Almaty to see the movie there.

But one of the really great things about Dushanbe is how cheap many things are.  The fresh produce is cheap (I love getting ripe summer tomatoes for fifteen cents a kilo), the household help is cheap, the restaurants and cheap, and, one of my personal favorites, the entertainment is cheap.

The week after Christmas, I took Kathleen, Sophia, Eleanor, and Joseph to see The Nutcracker.  It wasn't the best ballet performance (some friends who had gotten used to Russian-quality ballet walked out), but it was reasonably good, especially for small children.  When Brandon was picking up tickets earlier, he asked how much they cost.  "Oh," I texted him, "probably less than a hundred Somoni." "Per ticket?" he replied.  "No, for all the tickets," I laughed.  The tickets came to sixty Somoni - which is $6.85.  I took myself and four children to see a live ballet performance for less than the cost of one matinee showing of a movie in America.

Sometimes we take children to the local amusement park when we really feel like splashing out.  We only do it for special occasions because it is kind of pricey.  There is an entrance fee and then you pay per ride, which adds up when you have five children riding rides.  But, we are generous parents and so we let them ride all the rides they want.  And usually it all adds up to about twenty-five dollars.  This is about how much we would drop on one ride for each child at a state fair.

There is a local water park, Delphin, that we sometimes go to.  It's actually pretty decent for Tajikistan, with a big pool, a little kid pool, a big kid pool with waterslides, and five big waterslides.  There are lots of lifeguards and the pool is remarkably clean, sometimes cleaner than the embassy pool.  I usually stay for the whole four hours (it's so popular that you can only stay four hours) and get lunch for everyone because I like their french fries and I don't want to get home at two or three in the afternoon with a bunch of hungry kids.  The last time we went, I spent a little over forty dollars for four entrances (Eleanor and William were free) and five lunches.

This new year's day we took the children bowling.  There is a bowling alley in the national tea house (Yes, this makes no sense.  There's also a movie theater and pool hall) that is actually really nice.  It's an AMF bowling alley, complete with video screen that show all of the hokey cartoons for strikes and spares and gutter balls.  We were having a fun time, so we stayed for a couple of hours and bowled two games.  It takes a long time to bowl two games with six people.  At the end Brandon paid up (they charge by the hour) and the total came - with shoes - to sixteen dollars.

When we went up to Safed Dara last week, we took a lot of cash with us (our rule of thumb in cash-only societies is to take way, way more than you think you might ever need).  After all, we were taking seven people (William never counts except on international flights) tubing, feeding them all lunch, and then on a gondola ride.  I used to ski in college, and I know how pricey gondola rides are.  The methodology of well-organized places in cash societies is to get a swipe card that you put a bunch of cash on and then use it to pay for everything (I imagine it is to keep the workers from pocketing spare change).  So Brandon put a lot of cash on it, and in the end, everything added up to fifty-two dollars.

I was talking with my sister who lives in North Carolina and she was bemoaning how expensive it is to do anything with her kids.  Bowling was $75, a movie was the same, and a cheap take-out dinner was $50 - and she only has four children.  Usually when I talk with my sister, I remember all of the things I miss about America.  She'll mention going to the library or the beach or Target or show me the new bookshelves she got at Target and I'll feel a little bit sad that I'm stuck in the middle of Central Asia where the closest Target is several plane rides away.

But this time I was on the (silently) gloating end.  We still don't have Target and English movies are very rare thing and parking lots are non-existent and blueberries are even more non-existent.  But, I can go do fun stuff with my six children without breaking the bank.  Dushanbe for the win.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Return to the Mountains

My family has been very happy on Saturdays for the past year or so.  When we first arrived in Dushanbe, I would drag them up to the mountains to hike almost every Saturday that I could.  I like being outside and I like exploring, so hiking is the perfect thing for someone like me.  

My children like not having to drag themselves up steep hills for an undetermined amount of time.  My husband likes not having to drag the children up steep hills, too.  But, I'm not a very nice mom and I once read in an Ensign article that it's good for families to do hard things together.  And they mentioned hiking by name, so no amount of whining could trump the combination of my love for hiking backed up by religious endorsement.

But then my thyroid stopped working and then I got pregnant and then I had a newborn and then it got hot and then it was brown and ugly in the mountains and so we just kind of stopped hiking.  Like I said, everyone was happy.

Usually the winter is a win-win time for everyone because we can go sledding.  I can be outside and the children willingly hike up steep slopes because they can sled down them.  But this winter has been very, very dry and sledding hasn't happened at all.  I started getting antsy, so this past Saturday I hauled everyone up into the mountains to go hiking.  

I found a likely hiking route on Google maps (this is how you find hiking routes in Tajikistan: look for a valley with a village at the mouth, drive to the end of the village, park the car, and start hiking.  This works every time).  Well, almost every time.  My chosen route, which was tantalizingly filled with trees (there aren't many trees here because they all get chopped down for firewood), turned out to be barred by a gate.  Brandon's Russian skills read the sign that informed us it was a science preserve or something like that.  So that's why the trees, I guess.  Our next route had an extremely sketchy bridge, so we went to option #3. 

The drive started out a little sketchy and we almost gave up, but Brandon, aided by four-wheel drive, persevered and we eventually found a place wide enough to park the car (a very important part hiking: being able to turn the car around when it's time to leave).  Everyone got out and started hiking.  It started off with a good bit of whining and at one point Brandon had William on his back and Eleanor on his shoulders.

But I was a magnanimous mother and let everyone stop (even though I could have hiked for another couple of hours) after forty-five minutes and eat their snacks.  Because they still only come for the snacks.  Unfortunately someone (me) had left the water back at the house, but it was pretty cold so nobody was dying of thirst.

Then the real fun started.  There was rock throwing.  And Edwin invented a new way to throw rocks: rock fireworks, when you throw a rock so hard it explodes into little pieces.  It's pretty fun to throw rocks when you're hiking because there isn't any other time when you're allowed to do that.

Next Sophia and Edwin tried their hands and rock climbing.  I commented to Brandon that we could have spent the morning paying to climb fake rocks indoors, but that we got to climb real rocks outside for free!  And, as a bonus, Brandon added, no ropes!

If it had been a sunny warm day we could have stayed much longer, but it started snowing so we had to head down.  And on the hike down, everyone was much happier.  

So now, of course, I am planning my next hiking Saturday.  After all, we're not going to live this close to the mountains in Tashkent, so I'd better get all of the fun in while I can.  My children are praying for lots and lots of snow, enough to keep us out of the mountains until May.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Safed Dara

Last Monday was a holiday, so we took the children up to Safed Dara, Tajikistan's best (and only) ski resort.  

Although Tajikistan gets plenty of snow in the mountains (it is a major source of water for a large part of Central Asia), the mountains themselves are actually pretty bad for skiing.  They are very steep and very rocky, which doesn't make for great runs.  Safed Dara is in a rare wide bowl and isn't very large.  You can see all the ski runs behind Eleanor in the picture above.  

I had no interest in taking the children skiing, so instead we went tubing.  Since skiing isn't a big sport here, the resort has wisely included other attractions - tubing, snowmobile rides, ice skating, a ropes course, a zip line, and pony rides.  

Normally we have a private sledding hill that we go sledding at, but it's been a very bad year for rain and snow here and there is no snow on the sledding hill.  The kids have been dying to go play in the snow, so I was glad that Safed Dara is a little over an hour out of town.

The resort has done a lot of improvements since it opened two years ago, and they have installed a gondola.  It had opened up a few more ski runs, but it also takes a lot of people up to the top just to look around.

The children (and Brandon), who had never been in a gondola before, enjoyed the ride.  Brandon felt a lot better when he saw that it was a German-made gondola.  It was, in fact, the best-constructed thing I've seen the whole three years we've been here.

But still Brandon made sure that everyone stayed seated and didn't rock the gondola.  It's always good to be safety-minded.

There was more snow at the top than at the bottom, and the children made good use of it.

William, who had been up all morning, took a nap while strapped to Brandon's front.

The older children found a nice steep snow bank and thoroughly enjoyed sliding down it.  One would have thought that they had had enough sliding, but if they were happy, I was happy.

Eleanor's legs were too short for climbing snow hills, so she sat around and made snowballs and threw them.

I joined her after awhile and the other children started throwing back when my aim improved enough to actually hit them.  We had a fun time until I got a little overexcited and whitewashed Edwin.  He was not happy.  I'm pretty sure we weren't friends for at least half an hour.

He's not happy in this picture.  But everyone else is, so the majority won.  Everyone had such a fun time (whitewashing excepted), that we might even go back one more time before we leave.  Hooray for fun things in Tajikistan!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

iPhone, One Year Later

So I've now had an iPhone (my very first smart phone) for a little over a year.  I always swore that I would never get a smart phone because I didn't want to spend my whole life staring at a little screen.  I've seen all of those phone-shaming ads (which are, ironically, posted on Facebook) where the mom misses her child's first step and the dad his son's game-winning goal and felt morally superior because I didn't own a smart phone so I saw all of that important stuff.  But now I've got one.

So after, a year, here's my take on owning a smart phone.

1.  I reply to emails and texts a lot faster.  Sometimes I would leave my regular cell phone in my purse for several days.  I don't get phone calls that often, so I'd forget and leave it in some random place.  When I finally found it, I'd see that a friend has sent me a text days ago I hadn't answered her.  I also used to check my email on the computer and then never bother to reply because I was too lazy.  Now I'm a lot better and almost always respond to texts and usually respond to emails.  It's a lot easier to type on the keyboard and I can do it quickly while I'm in the middle of other things.

2.  I don't waste as much time on the computer.  I would look forward to checking email so much that when I checked email, I would then go and check Facebook and look for other things to do so that I could avoid getting back to work.  It would turn a two-minute task into fifteen minutes of time wasting.  Now the emails just come all the time so email checking isn't some special thing that I look forward to.

3.  I take more pictures and videos.  The pictures aren't as good as the ones I take with my DSLR camera, but I do take a lot more of them.  Now I can take a quick picture to remember that we went bowling so that twenty years later I can remember that particular new year's day.  I wasn't taking any videos before I got my phone because our video camera's battery was never charged.  Now I can catch clips of the kids doing cute things and I'm happy about that.

4.  I can listen to things more easily.  I had an iPod nano that I would listen to general conference talks, podcasts, music, and audiobooks on, but I had to transfer everything manually.  Now everything magically updates on my phone, which also has a lot more memory.  I listen to music more while I'm cooking dinner because I have my phone on me anyway, and it's nice to have access to my books when I'm unexpectedly stuck waiting for awhile and didn't bring my Kindle.  I still prefer reading on my Kindle, however.

5.  I can text friends and family much easier.  Between iMessage and Facebook Messenger, I can contact anyone anywhere in the world, which is really nice.  If I have a question for my mom or my sister or my friend who lives in the US, I can just text them and skip having to deal with emails and we can have semi-conversations.  If I'm really committed to the conversation, I can use the phone feature on Facebook or the Magic Jack app on my phone.  I used to be tied to the computer to do these things (which meant they mostly didn't happen), and now I can do them anywhere, which is nice.

6.  Maps.  This is a lifesaver every time I travel.  It was great to be able to use my phone for navigation while I was in London and not worry about getting lost.  Same for the the US.  I even use maps while I'm here, although it's more just to see where I am than to let it navigate me.  It really is great to not have to be lost ever.

1. I really do sit an act just like those moms in the shame-videos.  Now that I have a constant source of entertainment, my first reflex when I have thirty seconds of down time is to pull out my phone.  I've gotten better about not doing it (partly because it turns out that there's not that much that is interesting on the internet anyway), but it is irritating to have Pavlov's bell ringing constantly.  Sometimes when I'm on my phone and one of the children are trying to tell me something, they'll trail off after a few sentences, ending with "Oh, you're on your phone.  I won't bother you...."  Ouch.

2.  I'm now stuck with having to update my technology every few years, which is just more money on stuff that will be obsolete.  So now I have to update my computer, laptop, table, and phone.  That adds up to some serious cash.  And when I'm in the US, data plans aren't cheap (although they're cheaper than they used to be).

So, that's my take on having a smart phone.  Obviously, I'm okay with it because I haven't gotten rid of it.  And just like everyone said, it really did make parts of my life easier.  I guess I'll just have to find something else to go and hang my principles on.