Archive for January, 2010

Bastard machine

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.  Get some Turkish lira and avoid the crappy rate the stores in the airport give you if you pay in dollars.  Seemed even better since I was waiting for friends to get their boarding passes and their line was moving slowly, so some time to kill.  Best of all, I could see an AKBank ATM not too far away.

When I was in Istanbul previously I had used ATM’s from AKBank without incident, so I had no reason to worry, right?  In honor of Robbie Burns (who’s 250th birthday we had recently celebrated at the Dushanbe Hyatt), I think it’s fair to quote him here:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Rhyme it brother man, ’cause that’s what happened to me.

It started innocuously enough: I inserted my card, I punched in my PIN, and the language selection page popped up.  That’s when things went tits up, as the Brits say.  I pressed the button for “English,” natch.  No reaction from the machine.  Okaaaay, I hit the button again, this time a bit harder.  Still nothing.  Third time’s the charm?  Uh, not so much.

Alright, I though, my language skills are that hot, but this was an ATM transaction not a conversation about geopolitics, so I figured I could muddle through in another language.  Français?  Non.  Deutsche?  Nein.  по-русски?  нет.  Okay, now I was getting desperate: Türkçe?  Unfortunately: Hayır.

My language gambit having failed, I resorted to pressing every button I could.  Enter, cancel, numbers, nothing worked.  I fell back on pounding the buttons — all of them, repeatedly — and when that too came to nought, I started kicking the machine.  Unsurprisingly, that too did not work.

Although I was loath to leave the ATM with my card still in it, and with the code already entered no less, I felt I had little choice.  The visa consular office-cum-counter was next to the ATM, but that best they could do was direct me to the border control agency.  They didn’t seem too militaristic, so I went over to them, and they offered to call AKBank.  They did, apparently, but whatever conversation they had was inconclusive (or at least, that’s what I got out of our pidgin English discussion about it).

At that point, the guy who had issued me my boarding passes noticed that I was wandering around, sweating, and looking somewhat panicked.  “What are you doing all the way over here in this part of the terminal?”  When I explained, he motioned for me to follow him, “I’ll help you.”  And he tried, yes, he tried, but the AKBank branch office in the airport refused to answer the phone multiple times over the course of 20 minutes.  When I mentioned to him that the ATM had said to call the customer service number, 444 2525 (yes, I remember it), he pointed me to the pay phone nearby as he only could call internally on his phone.

Ultimately, this call was both unsatisfactory and somewhat relieving.  AKBank had an English language option and I got a rep that spoke some English, and she told me that the card was gone.  Foreign bank cards taken by AKBank ATM’s are “extinguished” and I had to call my bank to “end” the card.  When I asked if someone could come and open the ATM up and give me back my card, she said that “for your security, this is not possible” even though I had ID.

That was it.  That was as far as I could take it.  Wicked bummer.

I blame NCR for making such a shit ATM, and I blame AKBank for seeming less than enthused to help me.  In fact, please feel free to give AKBank a piece of your mind on my behalf: AKBank Complaint Procedure page.

Oh well, at least I’m on vacation.

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Be afraid, be very afraid

Okay, maybe tasty is too strong.  And maybe “cognac” is inaccurate.  But, I can vouch for the alcoholic nature of this beverage.  Hopefully, assuming it does not explode mid-flight, which would be unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, soon my friends at home in Boston will be sampling this very bottle of Tajik intoxicating nectar.

That’s right, I’m off to the U.S. for vacation and for the American national holiday, Super Bowl Sunday.  I promise to take pictures, and may also, perhaps, blog while home.

If any Dushanbe pals want anything from Sam’s Club, just let me know, I’m happy to be a beast of burden and bring things back with me.  I plan to bring back some vino and I know O.G. will want some cigars; otherwise, drop me a line.

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цирк du Dushanbe

Shane has a really nice post up on his blog about our trip to the Tajik State Circus last week.  He exactly describes the vibe as we found our seats in the faux-futuristic spaceship of the circus arena:

Inside a smiling rotund lady in a purple overcoat guides us to our grooved seats. We sit amongst the buzz of excitement and balloon-dogs, the masses are anticipating a comedy, and the three westerners are expecting a tragedy.

Our fears were misplaced.  As Shane points out, watching this circus transported us, jaded Westerners, back to the 1940s, or earlier.  There were lots of simple sight gags and simple tight rope routines, and nothing with glitz or gloss.  Yet the Tajiks loved it and we found it oddly endearing.

You could do nothing other than be taken in by a level of humour our grandparents appreciated. Sat on my left a Tajik father burst into uncontrollable laughter as a coin, miraculously discovered behind a small boys ear, bounced into a tin. His laughter was infectious.

It was the sort of event that would have bored the average American kid to tears and which would have left me disappointed at home.  No lions or elephants?  No super-dangerous high wire flips?  No funny jokes, just a succession of broad slapstick from the clowns?  Only one midget?  No, no, no, that would not do in a world of Gameboys and ADHD.  But here in Dushanbe, well, that was a different story.

Just coincidentally, us housemates watched the 29th Monte Carlo Circus Festival on the Polish television station TV Puls last night (which raised a few questions: when did Princess Stephanie get so old looking? why are they showing dubbed circus festivals from 2005 in 2010? would they ever show anything like this on American TV nowadays?), and that performance highlighted all the technical deficiencies of the show in Dushanbe.  But the show we saw last week made up for it in a commodity we don’t always value in the go-go West: charm.

(Photo from Suratgirak’s photo stream on Flickr.  Unfortunately, my camera is not working for some reason, so no photos from the circus by me.)

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My domain hack: http://friejo.se

Recently, I came across the concept of a domain hack.  The idea is to use an odd or little-known internet domain to spell out a word or two for your domain name.  An example is http://nyti.ms, a domain name set up by The New York Times that uses the .ms domain (assigned to the Caribbean island of Montserrat) to create a domain name to looks awfully close to “nytimes.”  Aha, branding!

Anyhow, I thought that would be a cool thing to have for myself, so thanks to the kind people of Sweden and the cheap European registrar Netim, I now am the proud owner of http://friejo.se.  Right now friejo.se simply redirects to this blog, but who knows, it could do something more cool or interesting in the future, and if it does it’ll be here first.

Also, as part of my registration of friejo.se, I’ve set up an e-mail address for people to contact if they have questions or comments about this blog: blog [at] friejo.se.  Feel free to drop me a line, unless it is about how vain it is to register a domain hack, it which case, just leave a snide comment for this post.

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They don't seem so intimidating during the day

After watching yet another blowout on AFN, M.L. and I managed, shockingly, to snag a taxi on Rudaki at 2:45 a.m. to take us home.  The cabbie dropped him off near the Pedagogical Institute, which is close to his house, and then continued south on Rudaki towards my part of town.  Because I was having trouble communicating with the cabbie, I had him drop me off at the Somoni statue, which isn’t far from my place.

That was a mistake.

As I walked briskly past the statue on my right, all the horror stories about being harassed by the militsa, the catch-all term for Tajik police, in front of the Somoni statue or on Rudaki or both entered my mind unbidden.  Shane and Carly stopped for no apparent reason while walking home and taken to a police station for no apparent reason; well, the reason was to get a bribe, obviously. Flasher told me once that the overnight militsa “shift” at the Somoni statue was a bunch of criminals who were often drunk.  Our intern over the summer getting stopped by a militsa guy, giving him 10 somoni to stop the harassment, and then the same cop following him every day for the next two months demanding more and more money.  These sorts of stories are legion among expats here, and the above are just a small, small sample.

It was as these tales were running through my head, that I heard the whistle.  My natural reaction, unfortunately, was to look to the left where the sound came from, and there he was, the militsa guy with a whistle in his mouth, sitting with his feet up in a niche window of the Main Post Office.  He saw me look, and blew the whistle again and motion for me to cross the street.

My first thought: fuck that.

My second thought: the bastard doesn’t have a gun.

My third, fourth, and fifth thoughts: I’ve done nothing wrong, my papers are in order, and traffic cops like him don’t have the legal authority to stop pedestrians like me.

My sixth thought: let’s see if he gets off his lazy ass to follow me.

So, I almost unwittingly shook my head slightly, faced forward, and continued walking.  I ignored his sing-songy shouts of “hello” and “stop” and several more whistle blows.  I kept telling myself, “be cool, don’t speed up, don’t slow down, just keep walking and be cool.”

As I rounded the corner, I considered and rejected ducking behind a restaurant to hide.  Still walking, whistles and what I presumed to be Russian curses ringing in my ears, I tried to determine how well the militsa guy could see me under the flickering street lamps.  Finally, around the KGB building, ironically enough, the whistles and shouts died away, and I kept walking.  When I turned the next corner, into the street/driveway that leads to my house here, I figured I was home free.

Stepping into my house, I realized that I was fairly calm.  Perhaps I had been subconsciously preparing for the day that someone from the militsa decided to shake me down, so nothing that happened was a big surprise.  Perhaps I counted on my NGO worker ID card from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and my American indignation to get me through should the cop have actually followed me.

Most likely though, I wasn’t afraid to bet on the profound dissoluteness and turpitude of the average member of the Tajik militsa, and wasn’t shocked when the guy just sat there blowing his whistle and nothing more.

(Photo is courtesy of Steve Evans on Flickr via Wikipedia Commons)

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One of my inspirations in writing here is the amazing Carpetblog.  The Carpetblogger’s caustic, funny, intelligent style made Carpetblog a joy to read, even if you had no interest in the topics she covered.

But moving to a place as Mxyzptlk weird as Tajikistan has made me appreciate her observations, and snide asides, about life in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Turkey — her expat homes — even more.  Only after the fullness of a Dushanbe summer could I understand why musing about the proper accessories for devushka boots was so hilarious, although this photo shamelessly purloined from her post on the subject might help you understand:

Sadly, this Ukrainian devushka has more style than her Tajik sistras

Unfortunately for us, Carpetblogger has had a rough go of it personally and is not really inspired by Istanbul to blog as it is a manifestly less odd place than, say, Baku.  So, her blog is going on a permanent hiatus, although she holds out the hope to her readers that someday a “Carpetblog II” will be launched.  Therefore, I’m keeping Carpetblog in my links (see to the right) and keeping my fingers crossed that the Carpetblogger starts blogging again real soon.

Best wishes Carpetblogger and good luck with whatever you do.

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Asia-Plus, a Tajik weekly that also publishes in English online, informs us:

DUSHANBE, January 8, 2010 — More than 80 million somoni worth [about $1.82 million — ed.] of shares in open joint-stock company (OJSC) NBO Roghun were sold in Dushanbe on January 6, when a large scale Roghun share sale campaign was launched in the country, Shavkat Saidov, a spokesman for the Dushanbe mayor’s office, told Asia-Plus today.

“The shares were sold both in cash and by written order on account,” said Saidov, “The mayor’s office appreciates Dushanbe resident’s active support for the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power plant (HPP).”

Because we hear about Roghun all the time here — it is trumpeted on banners festooning the main streets of Dushanbe, the president harangues passers-by about it from huge “L.A. Story“-style (or is it “1984”) video screens, locals talk nervously to us about affording the shares in the dam company that they are expected to buy, my friend Cedric has Facebook updates about it — it can be easy to forget that that rest of world knows next to nothing about this dam which, allegedly, can change Tajikistan’s destiny, according to the authorities.

The dam itself isn’t necessarily a bad idea.  While short of fossil fuels, Tajikistan is blessed with water and a lot of it.  Due to its surprisingly heavy precipitation and to glacier melt, Tajikistan has water supplies that its wealthier, more powerful neighbors do not.  Unfortunately for Tajikistan, its water resources are difficult to harness as they require the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to build hydro-power stations.  Doubly unfortunate is that what Tajikistan has in water resources, it lacks in other energy resources.

Uzbekistan, one of Tajikistan’s wealthier and more powerful neighbors (and with whom it has a not innocuous rivalry), in particular, has tried to use this energy disparity against Tajikistan’s government by alternately threatening to and actually cutting off natural gas supplies to the country, as the majority of the natural gas used in Tajikistan comes from Turkmenistan and must transit Uzbekistan via a pipeline to reach the country.

This is where Roghun Dam comes in.

Where the Roghun Dam will be built

Construction of the dam fulfills two strategic goals for Tajikistan’s current government: 1) become more energy self-sufficient and 2) obtain some leverage against Uzbekistan, for an operational Roghun would allow the Tajik government to significantly reduce the flow of river water to Uzbekistan, if it so chose.

Due in part to the embargo on Southern cotton during the American Civil War, Russia and then the Soviet Union extensively irrigated the arid desert flatlands of Uzbekistan to grow cotton, and lots of it.  Cotton is an extraordinarily thirsty crop and requires massive amounts of water to grow.  Being in the desert, Uzbek cotton farmers, primarily students press-ganged by the Uzbek government, depend on the rivers flowing down from the mountains of their neighbor — you guessed it — Tajikistan to water their vast fields of cotton.  That its economy is based on a cotton monoculture only makes the dictatorial Uzbek regime even more touchy about the construction of any Tajik dams that may interfere with Uzbek water supplies.

For years, Russia used the potential construction of the Roghun station as a way to play Tajikistan and Uzbekistan off against each other, and enhance its own leverage against the former Soviet provinces, by first supporting and then withdrawing support for the project.  Flustered by Russia’s fickleness, unable to secure other investors, and lacking the cash to build the dam within the governmental budget, the president decided to ask for (impose a) voluntary (mandatory) donations (taxes) on the Tajik people to pay for building Roghun.

As construction of Roghun is expected to cost $600 million just to get the first of six planned power stations operational, and Tajikistan’s population is about 6.8 million people, this donation/tax could come to $88 for every man, woman, and child in the country.  This is a place where the average monthly salary is $60, meaning that most working people live on a dollar or two per day.  And remember that the unemployment rate is about 30%, not including the 50% of the population that is under the age of 18.

Long story short, $88  is a heck of a lot of money for an average Tajik citizen.  And the government is leaning on people here to pay up, as Shane details in his blog, if not for the whole $88 yet.

The hypocrisy is astounding, if not surprising.  I’d be interested to know how many somoni in cash the president is contributing to the construction of Roghun, considering that news reports indicate that he has potentially hundreds of millions of dollars squirreled away in secret bank accounts around the world.  More on this here and here.  And the president isn’t the only one who’s bent, many people in government are on the take.  How much have they “donated” to the building of these power stations?

As far as anyone knows, they haven’t contributed a single Tajik dinar diram* to the project.  That’s disgusting, and disgustingly typical.

*Edit to use the correct currency.  100 Tajik dirams = 1 Tajik somoni.

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