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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.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Uzbek Circus

My phone rang Thursday afternoon while I was feeding children lunch (one of the least favorite parts of my day) and it was Brandon.  "Question for you," he asked, "Do you want to take the kids to the circus?"

Circuses are a lesser-known remnant of Soviet culture.  Every large city in the former Soviet Union has a dedicated circus building and they're still being used today.  There are various circus troupes that come and tour and when they come into town, there are enough people who like circuses to sell out performances.  

I had seen an email going around about the Uzbek circus being in town and had wanted to go, but I was too lazy to do anything about it.  There is no such thing as online ticketing here, so you have to go and buy the tickets on some other random day and we're halfway across the city (a ten minute drive!) from the circus.  So, when Brandon called, I was happy that he was randomly at the circus to buy tickets.  He had been out going to a meeting that was close to the circus and one of his colleagues had gone to buy tickets so he figured he might as well buy tickets, too.  

We went to the circus in Baku, so this time I knew what I was in for (no elephants, lots of acrobatics, and good seat pretty much anywhere in the house).  But it was also interesting to see what was different about the circus here.  Baku had lots of stilettos, flesh-colored leotards, bleached blonde hair, and sparkles.  The Uzbek circus was much more toned-down and less flashy, with nary a stiletto in sight.  The show was started out by the performers dancing to traditional music in traditional Uzbek costume (which looks pretty much exactly like traditional Tajik costume).  The women all had lovely long, dark hair and didn't show much skin past their shoulders.  The music was also a mix of booming loud club-style music with an occasional American song thrown in ("Cotton-Eyed Joe" bought me back to my teenager-hood).

But it was still an entertaining mix of acts.  We got to watch a lady doing tricks on a swinging rope, dog tricks, monkey tricks, pony tricks, and a llama (which didn't do any tricks).  There was a juggler, hula-hooper (which ended with a flaming hula hoop - always awesome), rope trick lady, whip-cracking man, and a tight rope walker.  He was pretty impressive - finishing his act by crossing the wire with two women sitting on his shoulder and one standing on his head.  We also enjoyed ladies swinging around on long sheets and men balancing ten-foot poles on their heads while women did handstands on top of the poles.  It was pretty awesome.

The children enjoyed the whole show (with the exception of William, who was not okay with having to sit on someone's lap for almost three hours - that's what we get for letting him sleep through church), along with all of the other children who had come for an afternoon of entertainment.  I won't be surprised if the children start getting a little more creative with their swing set and jungle gym, and I'm pretty sure Eleanor and Joseph will start going to the circus during their play time.  

I enjoyed it too, when I wasn't wrestling William.  I don't think watching people do amazing tricks ever can really get old.  It doesn't matter if you're watching it at the Cirque to Solei in Vegas, on YouTube videos, or in an old Soviet circus building surrounded by a thousand of your closest Tajik buddies.  A circus is still a circus.  And it's always a good show.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

2017 In Retrospect

2017 was a pretty good year for the Sherwood Family.  Honestly I can't really think of a year that was horrible all around, although I think that 2011 probably wins for the most unsettled year.  But most years have their own share of good times and bad times, with the good times always outnumbering the bad times.  This year was no different.

It started in North Carolina.  We had just gotten there after two days of traveling and so I rang in the New Years by sleeping.  Brandon was on his way back to Dushanbe, so he rang in the New Year by eating airport food in Istanbul.  We really know how to party.

The first three months of 2017 were spent in North Carolina where finished I gestating William, delivered William, and got official documents for William.  In between all of the appointments for William, Eleanor got bladder surgery, the four oldest children took swim lessons, we caught up with friends and cousins, and everyone ate lots and lots of American convenience food.  Also, we went to the park and the library.  It was great fun for everyone.

Then we had to go back to Dushanbe.  After all, Brandon gets paid to do work at the embassy, not hang out for two months in North Carolina taking care of me, so eventually we had to return to real life.  We got home, put our life back together, and I got used to cooking my own food again before my parents showed up to come and visit us

Yes, we had just seen them for three months solid.  But, Tajikistan has a narrow window of time where it is 1. warm enough 2. green enough and 3. not too hot to visit and that window is in late April and early May.  It was the last window before we left and the first window since my parents returned from three years in Peru.  So, more togetherness.

After my parents' departure, the children and I schooled all summer long to play catch-up from all of our play time in North Carolina.  Brandon worked all day while the rest of us spent many afternoons (after school work was done) swimming in the embassy pool (after it was fixed) where Brandon could watch us from his office.  It's a hard job being a mom sometimes, but somebody has to do it.

In August we went back to the US again, a trip that only should happen once a year.  But since we were in charge of Brandon's family reunion, we didn't have much of a choice.  We spent two weeks at the beach and had a great time catching up with family, swimming in the ocean, and eating fried seafood.  The children renewed their request to please, pretty please move somewhere near the beach.  I told them that Benin has an embassy right across the street from the beach, and they said that it wouldn't count.

After getting back, it was school time again.  I never realized how much a time commitment schooling is until it was too late to not have children.  Somehow I thought that I could get out of that by homeschooling, but that is definitely not true.  Turns out that being a mom is a full time job no matter what choice you make for schooling. 

At the end of October, I spent almost two glorious weeks in London alone while getting some blood test done (which came back normal.  Even better!).  I ate, played, shopped, read, slept, and reveled in having nothing to do but entertain myself.  Life is sometimes hard, but other times it's awesome.

Two days after getting back from London, Brandon and I surprised the children with a trip to Dubai, which was equally awesome.  We ate, played, read, slept, rode waterslides, swam, and reveled in having nothing to do but entertain ourselves.  See about about life being awesome sometimes.

When we got back, it was time for the Marine Ball, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  Brandon managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Missouri for his grandfather's funeral.  The children and I squeezed school in between all the partying, and celebrated our all hard work this year by taking the last week of December off. 

The children rang in the new year by going to bed (and then being woken by fireworks) and Brandon and I rang it in by staying up and reading our Christmas books.  We really know how to party.

When I look back on 2017, I will probably think of it as the Year of Traveling and the Year of Using Our Medical Insurance Fully.  Or, in other words, the Expensive Year, the year where I got to realize that money is a tool to be used and not just hoarded jealously in my bank account.  I'd rather keep it in my bank account, but I'm grateful that it was there to be used when we needed it.  With our move this summer, I'm afraid that 2018 will be the Expensive Year, Part II. 

But more importantly, 2017 was also the year where William joined our family.  He's definitely the best thing that came out of 2017, although the family reunions, trip to Dubai, and trip to London were pretty amazing, too. 

This past year will definitely be another check in the 'good year' column.  I'm looking forward to see what 2018 will bring!