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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.  

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Two Birthdays and an Anniversary

Before Joseph and I left on our fabulous trip to London, Eleanor had a birthday.  Sophia has been the only two year-old so far who understood what a birthday was (she was singing the song to herself for weeks before the day), so Eleanor had no idea what was going on when we brought her a cake with burning things on it.  Brandon modeled blowing out the candles and after four or five tries, Eleanor got it and managed to blow most of the candles out without too much spit.

We wrapped up her one present from us (the second from her Grammy didn't quite make it in time) and she was more than pleased to have her very own little American Girl dolly to molest.  Two year-olds are so easy to please.

Before Eleanor's birthday, Brandon and I celebrated our eleventh anniversary.  I feel like after your first decade, the years are only momentous every five, so eleven didn't feel much different from five.  I surprised Brandon with a day off from work and we ditched the children with the housekeeper.  We went hiking in the morning, checked into the Hyatt (their tastier breakfast beat the nicer rooms at the Sheraton), showered off, and went to a friend's goodbye party.  And of course had delicious breakfast the next morning.

Eleven years feels like it should be such a long time - by now we should have everything perfectly down - but it really isn't.  There are things about Brandon that I'm still finding out - he prefers my hair almost to my waist - and insights about being a good wife that still surprise me.  I always imagined that at some point I would have nailed marriage and everything would be skipping off together into the sunset after that.  Sure, there would be problems coming from outside but we would have no disagreements or difficulties after we figured out how to be perfect people.  It wouldn't take that long. Right?  But of course, as all of you wiser people out there already know, marriage is a perpetual work in progress.  But that's okay.  It's good to have a project.

And then last week Sophia turned eight.  I remember Kathleen finally turning eight and of course, Sophia's eight birthday kind of snuck up on me.  That's the way it is for all children after your first - they're not breaking any new ground (well, at least in the birthday department).  We had hoped to baptize her here, but it looks like we're going to have to wait until August during our R&R.  Too bad for the cool factor (I got baptized in a friend's sauna in Tajikistan!) but better for having relatives there.  Baptisms are important, but it's a really, really long flight to get here.

Sophia's siblings were all excited for her birthday and also excited to get school off.  The great thing about homeschooling is nobody has to have school for their birthday.  Instead we took a picnic lunch to the botanical gardens and had a great time not being in school.  Sophia did have to attend Russian lessons, but it was okay.  She had her favorite dinner, Eggs Benedict, and Raspberry Baccone for her cake and then, of course, presents.  Our present to her had been sitting in the closet since we came back from Uzbekistan and Sophia was happy to see it again, since she was the one who picked it out.  Kathleen had very happily spent her money on a couple of candy bars (hooray for candy!  It doesn't have to be moved!) and Edwin had made a paper doll for Sophia.  Brandon's mother sent out a very lovely locket that Sophia was very happy about.

After Brandon's birthday in a few weeks we'll be done with the six-week cluster of holidays.  Then it will be a few month's dry spell until Kathleen's birthday in August.  But one of the great things about having a big family is having lots and lots of things to celebrate!