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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Earning That Thirty Percent

All posts in the Foreign Service are not created equal.  Some places, like Paris or London are in nice, first-world countries.  Other places like Lagos or Luanda are not.  Since this is not the military where people sign over the ability to choose where they will live, there has to be something that evens up the playing field at little.  Money.  This comes in the form of various incentives - airplane tickets, large housing, SND, and differential.  So if you live in London you get paid the basic salary (plus a cost of living adjustment). However, if you are willing to give up things like lines, street signs, rationality, and not sticking out like a store thumb, the State Department will compensate you with a bonus on top of your salary.  This is how we have ended up in places like Cairo, Baku, Dushanbe and Tashkent.  I like nice places but evidently I like money more.  Even when it means putting up with an inherent inability to understand basic traffic rules.

Dushanbe, as I have mentioned before, is a 30% differential post.  This means that you take Brandon's basic salary and then put 30% more on top.  It's pretty great, I won't lie.  I like looking at our retirement accounts every few months and seeing more money every time.  Magic!

When we first moved here I felt like that extra money was a little like taking candy from a baby.  Dushanbe has things like power, running water, grocery stores, traffic lights (that people follow!), and housekeepers.  When I go out, nobody bothers me and the traffic is pretty nonexistent.  There are much worse places in the world to live (I'm looking at you, Luanda).

Then Eleanor got sick.  It was nothing life threatening, just diarrhea and vomiting that left Eleanor reasonably dehydrated.  If we had been in the States (or even in Europe), Eleanor would have been hooked up to an IV, rehydrated, and sent on her way.  Instead we stayed up all night feeding her fluid by sips every half an hour or so.  That night I felt the lack of local medical services that are part of the reasons for our 30% differential.  I won't lie, I don't mind getting non-emergency situations resolved in London, but it's those emergency ones that make you wish you didn't care for money so much.

But for everyday life, Dushanbe still really wasn't that hard.  After all, I spend most days living in my enormous house that I don't clean.  Then we started having problems with travel.  But at least, when we had to cancel and re-book tickets, we weren't paying for them right?  But then we did.

It's summer travel season again, and this year I learned my lesson and made sure to not fly a single leg of our flights on Turkish.  I had all of my flights lined up and was bugging Brandon about getting his leave request signed when our new airline - Somon - started having troubles.  Fuel here in Tajikistan has gotten very expensive (about $500 a ton more than anywhere else in the region), and Somon has been getting around the problem (and their unpaid fuel bill) by making unannounced stops in Ashgabat to fuel up before heading on to Germany.  Sometimes people make their connections and sometimes they don't, so it's back to Turkish again despite my promises that it would never happen.

And also with summer comes electricity problems.  Our house has had a bad connection with the city power since the day we moved in two and a half years ago.  Whenever there's too much of a power draw (like drying clothes and running the air conditioning), the generator turns on, turns off all the power when it switches on, and then turns off.  Endlessly.  So when it's 105 degree outside our play/school room gets hot enough on laundry days to melt crayons.  Literally. I found half-melted ones in their box last summer.

But still, thirty percent is a lot of money.  I'm willing to put up with quite a few things for money, especially as the SND (15% on top of the 30 if we stay three years) has kicked in.  We all have our price, and it turns out that I'm pretty easy to buy.  Dushanbe may have major airline issues, poor (very poor) house construction, and hot endless summers, but it is still not Africa.  And also money.  I like that part.

Then.  But then.

Tajikistan is a very poor country and hasn't been getting any richer.  One of the solutions that the government has pursued is getting money out of those that have it, including foreign businesses.  This hasn't affected me - I live in a bubble created with US tax dollars - and so I haven't paid attention.

But last week, those depredations hit home when the government revoked the licenses of foreign courier services, including DHL.  It turns out that our mail - the magical thing that brings Oreos, J. Crew, Target, Amazon, and Synthroid to my house - is delivered by DHL.  The same DHL that is no longer licensed to operate in Dushanbe.

We got an email from the management section at the embassy informing us that no more mail would be coming.  The pouch facility in Virginia would hold everything already sent, but anything else ordered would be sent back if it showed up.  So, make sure and hoard the Oreos because no more are coming until further notice.

It was then that I decided that Dushanbe and I can no longer be friends.  I can put up with its spotty medical services as long as everyone stays healthy.  I will forgive the insane driving because everyone in these countries drives like that.  As long as the pool is open we can survive two months of one-hundred degree heat.  I will just not cook any recipes that use avocados, asparagus, bacon, blueberries, boneless skinless chicken thighs, or plain yogurt.  When I'm in America I can binge on Mexican food, Krispy Kreme, and Wendy's.  I know by now to not even bother streaming my favorite TV shows.  Constantly rearranging airline travel is frustrating, but doesn't happen that often.  I can even learn to turn on the just the right number of split packs that will keep the house just cool enough without turning on the generator.  And we've even learned to deal with GI issues - the carpet cleaner is an essential tool in that fight.

But pouch.  That is just too far.  Mail days are like Christmas, the kind of Christmas that brings you things you really need, like medicine and clothes for the children, and things you really want, like a new purse or Instant Pot.  It also brings things like toilet paper, school books, and sanity.  Could I get some of those things here?  Maybe (Okay, probably not the sanity).  But I don't have the time, inclination, or language skills to borrow the car from Brandon, find a babysitter for the children, drive down to the market that has no signs or anyone who knows enough to tell you where to find the safety pins or pair of shoes you desperately need are.  That's what Amazon is for.  But not now.  I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder buckling down for that long, endless winter in North Dakota where they started eating the seed corn so they wouldn't starve.  Don't eat all the Triscuits, kids.  We don't know when we'll get more.

While I was breathing into a paper bag, Brandon did point out that there are plenty of people in this country that are suffering a lot more from the bad conditions than I am.  It's not Target they're missing, but things like food and jobs, and that made me feel not quite better, but at least contrite.  Then I went to another room so he wouldn't see me keep breathing into that bag.

This issue affects more than my new running shoes (official pouch is also affected), and so I know it's not going to last forever.  But until then I'm going to be really careful with those Triscuits.  Two crackers apiece and not a cracker more.

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