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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cold, Dark Times

It's finally thinking about being winter here in Dushanbe.  After a long, gorgeous tail end of summer, the falls rains have come and with them cooler weather.  The mountains ringing the city have snow dusting their tops, reminding me that it's not too long before that snow comes to Dushanbe.  A few days ago I made the children try on their snow boots and pants, and the hat and mitten bins have come out of hiding to be restored to their wintertime place on the shoe racks.

The drop in temperatures have also brought the bane of all Tajiks' existence - blackouts.  Tajikistan is almost entirely powered by Nurek dam, about an hour south of Dushanbe.  This country doesn't have much in the way of natural resources other than tall mountains and stunning beauty and bringing anything into the country is very expensive, so any other form of power generation doesn't make much sense, especially as the dam was already built with Tajikistan became independent.

This works really well in the summer when the meltwater comes down off those really tall mountains.  There is enough water flowing through the dam that the spillway makes a pretty impressive plume all summer long.

Everyone has plenty of cheap, reliable (relatively) power.  A friend who is here with an NGO quoted me her electricity bill for July - 50 somoni, or $7.46.  Our generator sits all summer, lurking in the courtyard unused and quiet.

But when fall temperatures hit and everyone gets cold, there isn't enough power to go around.  And after the mountains start to freeze up and the water stops flowing so well, there really isn't enough power to go around.  This used to be mitigated by natural gas flowing in from Uzbekistan.  In the summer, power would flow out of Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and in the winter the flow would be reversed, with natural gas coming her to keep everyone warm.  But the countries haven't been on friendly terms for a decade or so and nothing flows either direction.  All of the gas pipes snaking their way through the city are empty and everyone is cold.

The villagers spend all summer taking their donkeys up into the hills to cut firewood for the winter.  Trees don't grow particularly well in the arid climate on steep hillsides and so there isn't much wood larger than a few inches in diameter for anyone to cut.  Coal is shipped in from China for city dwellers to use - our house was designed for the radiators to be run off a coal stove - but coal doesn't power lights or run cooking stoves.  And so everyone keeps candles.  And blankets.  And clothes to layer.

But mostly they're just cold and dark.

Those who have enough money (and somewhere to put it) have generators, and we're part of the lucky few percent who can depend on warmth and light all winter long.  I find myself irritated by the noise and smell sometimes when it runs half a day and into the night, but then when darkness falls and the hill behind our house is black black black, I repent of my irritation and am grateful for light switches that work every single day.

As the temperatures have continued cold and our working heat has no date fixed yet, I have found new sympathy for my neighbors in the cold months of winter.  One morning I painted with a pair of 600-fill down camping slippers, pants, long shirt, pullover, and down jacket and still found my nose and fingers cold.  This, I thought to myself as I tried to quell irritation about the heat, is only the beginning of what most Tajiks have to deal with all winter long.  Even with heat, they're lucky to have a 60 degree house.  I'm used to winter being the season of coats and mittens for outside and only pants and a shirt inside.  Here, Tajik babies wear tights and undershirts and socks and slippers and pants and sweaters and long shirts inside the house.  There are more clothes for outside.

I know that  poorly working radiators and cold bathroom floors are just temporary; one day I'll have a magical thermostat that will make sure that my whole house - even the bathroom - stays the temperature I tell it.  I won't have the lights shut off on my while I'm in the shower and the water slow to a trickle (our water comes from household tanks and the pressure from an electric pump) as I count to five and wait for the generator to come on.

But for those who live here, these things are the way life is.  Sometimes the power is on and sometimes it's off.  One day you have heat and the next day you don't.  Bundle up and keep your candles ready because it's a few more months until spring.  Hold your breath and pray the winter isn't long or cold or too dark.  Wait eagerly for summer and the return of light, warmth, plently of food, and no cold in sight.  Then do it all again when the next winter comes.

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