Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Wanna change money? Buy a suzani?

I walk to work in the center of Dushanbe every day, and, along the way, I pass dozens of places to change money.  Most of them have signs identical to the one pictured above giving the exchange office’s buy (ХАРИД) and sell rates (ФУРЎШ) for the day on a variety of currencies against the Tajik somoni.  Invariably, the US dollar is one of the currencies listed.

Last week, the dollar took a real dive against the somoni.  Now, I don’t get paid in somoni (or dollars for that matter) and I make enough that most currency fluctuations won’t hit me too hard.  That said, it was a bit odd to see the somoni go from approximately 4.88 to the dollar on last Thursday, down to about 4.60 to the dollar by last Sunday.  I wasn’t aware of any macroeconomic event causing the shift, and I didn’t even hear anyone comment on the change.  Just — poof! — and almost 6% of the value of the dollar disappeared in a few days for no apparent reason.

The only thing I can figure is that the streetside exchange offices like the one above offer a market rate for money exchange that is often fairly different from the rate set by the National Bank of Tajikistan.  I know this because our contractors at work often whine that they are getting less than than expected when they get paid according to the National Bank rate rather than the market rate for contracts denominated in dollars.  Hell, I whine about that too when I get my dollar-paid reimbursements back in somoni.  So, I wonder if someone from the National Bank, or elsewhere in the government, leaned on the money changers for having a better exchange rate, which then caused the exchange offices to overcompensate with a rate worse than the National Bank rate.

Just conjuncture, who knows?  All I know is that this morning on my walk to work, I spied the market rate above, 4.81 somoni to the dollar.  Not exactly back to where we started, but it is quite a two-day rally for the dollar against the somoni.  Maybe it’s time to short the somoni, if you could do such a thing.

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com (their cheesy phraseology, not mine – ed.) mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 7,400 times in 2010. That’s about 18 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 36 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 115 posts. There were 69 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 6mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was July 20th with 117 views. The most popular post that day was A first growth Bordeaux hiding in Dushanbe.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, tojikvso.blogspot.com, carpetblog.typepad.com, syukyuman.blog95.fc2.com, and en.wordpress.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for dushanbe, devushka, nurek dam, roghun, and roghun dam.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


A first growth Bordeaux hiding in Dushanbe July 2010


Dushanbe’s Haji Yakub Mosque April 2009


Roghun Dam: A story of water, cotton, corruption, and coercion January 2010


Good-night, sweet Carpetblog January 2010


About April 2009



So that’s the end of WordPress’s summary of my blog, and I wanted to take a brief moment out of digging through several hundred unresponded-to e-mails that I ignored over the holidays to wish everybody a Happy New Year, and also to apologize for the dearth of posts since about June.  That’s when I moved to Zimbabwe and it has been an amazing six months, filled with romance, stone sculptures, furniture commissioning, job hunting, and English solicitor qualification exams.  All is well though, better than great in most ways, and my New Year’s resolution is to keep in better touch with this blog and my other, wine auctions one too.

So, best to everyone and expect more soon.

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Under an African sky at Great Zimbabwe... oh shit, cliched again!

As many of you know, I recently moved to Zimbabwe.  It’s quite a departure from Tajikistan, and there’s lots and lots to write about here.  But being new to the country and the continent, and knowing a bit of the difficult history of both the country and the continent, I’ve been hesitant to blog about Africa.  Luckily, I ran across some advice for people like me.

The title of this post is from an article that appeared in Granta magazine in 2005 by Binyavanga Wainaina and was relatively recently referenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite bloggers at The Atlantic magazine’s website.

It turns out that I’m not the only one finding that it is tough to write about Africa, and Africans, without sounding like a ignorant racist asswipe.  Wainaina gives some tongue-in-cheek advice for the would-be Africa writer, and since I’d rather avoid giving people that impression about me, I will do my best not to fall prey to the many, many tired cliches that he mentions and which writers lapse into when discussing Africa.* If I fail, call me out on it.

* I know, “tired cliche” is itself a tired cliche, but that’s par for the course for me in blog posts and doesn’t unmask me as a racialist dick, just as a sometimes lazy writer.

In the meantime, here’s the sort of stuff I’m trying to avoid:

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermetic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Any of you see my falling into stereotypes or florid prose, as I said, call me out.  Please.

And with that disclaimer and plea for help, expect posts on Zim and Africa soon.

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Ever since I entered South Junior High in 1986, my school teams have always worn Red, and it was a big sports week for the Red teams.

Hingham High boys ice hockey won the Eastern Mass Super 8 tournament, and thereby essentially the Massachusetts state title, beating Catholic Memorial 1-0.  I watched HHS beat St. John’s Shrewsbury for the DII crown my senior year at the old Garden, but a victory in the Super 8 against the best other seven high school teams is even more than that.  It means going up against the private schools, the religious high school behemoths like CM and Archies, and the prep squads too.  It’s the big time, as much a schoolboy hockey can be big time, and it’s a heck of an achievement for a bunch of young guys from 02043.

Meanwhile, the Big Red, the jump shooters from Cornell continued their Cinderella run in March Madness beating the University of Wisconsin 87-69 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the Big Dance, the NCAA Tournament.  I saw the Red get licked in Anaheim two years ago by the Lopez brothers and a much stronger Stanford team.  Although this club has some of the same players, they are now seniors and seasoned and making their run.  Now if I can just find a way to watch the game against Kentucky on Thursday, I’d be stoked, though listening to it on ‘VBR isn’t half bad.

A great, great week for my teams, and even though I missed much of it — sumalak and Navruz vacation got in the way — I can’t wait for their next act.

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Or, the Diggity Dug Memorial JPG

One of the spam e-mails that ABA frequently sends me (now THAT is a wicked awesome perk of the free membership that comes with the job) pointed me to an article about a Harvard-trained lawyer who decided to give up his job at a big NYC law firm, burned his Harvard law diploma, and embarked on a quest for simplicity.  I feel that I did something similar by quitting my firm job at home and coming out here to Central Asia for a pro bono gig.  I didn’t burn my diploma though.  Also, I was aiming less for simplicity (as anyone who has seen my recently-acquired suzani collection here can attest) and more for a change of scenery and fulfillment in my job.  That I met amazing people here and fell in love were happy additions to the plan.

Anyway, this guy is blogging about his life changes, and despite not exactly being Thoreauvian in his writing, his blog can be amusing and, dare I say, interesting.  Though as someone who uses phrases like “dare I say” earnestly, I guess I would like a blog that addresses his “dear readers.”

In any event, check it out, the “Adventures in Voluntary Simplicity”: http://adventuresinvoluntarysimplicity.blogspot.com/

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This is a composite list based in part on things U. and I discussed while in the States the last two weeks.  Nothing earth-shattering here and some gross generalizations, but worth noting nevertheless:

  1. People in the service industry are pretty damn attentive.  Sometimes this was annoying — leave me alone I’m eating — but most of the time, it was a joy.
  2. Many things are very well made.  I especially found myself noticing this in buildings at home, the full grouting, the straight lines, the proper insulation, etc.
  3. You can get almost any type of food you want from almost any part of the world.  While in the U.S. I ate Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Italian, French (both bistro and fusion), Mexican, New England (both classic and contemporary), and lots of sandwiches, boy did I miss sandwiches.
  4. Consumer goods are cheap compared to the rest of the world.  A corollary to this is that you can get cheap consumer goods lots of places, but the quality is garbage, while in the U.S., items are cheap and good.
  5. Americans are big people.  Not necessarily obese, although we saw plenty of fat folks during the trip, but uniformly large and well-fed.
  6. Washington DC and its inhabitants have a sickness, a disease, when it comes to dealing with snow.  The disease is that they can’t deal with it.
  7. It’s nice to be able to drink tap water without worrying about getting sick.
  8. It’s nice not to worry about random power or heat cuts.
  9. It’s nice to see cops and not wonder when and how they’ll try to shake you down.
  10. It’s really nice to have a good, old-fashioned hamburger.

Back in Dushanbe now and expect to get geared up for a more consistent blog posting schedule now that I’m back.  And yes, the vacation was amazing.

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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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Seen in Dushanbe recently

Sometimes the overwhelming shoddiness of Tajikistan strikes me.

Finish painting (see below)?  Nah.  Finish paving (see above)?  Nope.

It’s impressive when a hole in the road manages to swallow a decent-sized chunk of truck.  It is even more impressive when this happens within sight of the so-called “Palace of Nations,” the president-decreed and Orwell-named monstrosity that resulted in the razing of an entire neighborhood.  Sure, let’s spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a gauche eyesore that looks like Versailles as designed by Imelda Marcos that no one even uses.  Let’s do this while people in the countryside starve, huddled in their dark, mud brick hovels.  But to not even bother to pave the road a couple hundred feet from the gates of said “palace” and across the street from the KGB headquarters?  Well, that’s just laziness.

Actually, I probably shouldn’t rule out ineptitude.  It is entirely possible that this road was paved relatively recently, but that that workmanship was so bad that it just disintegrated post-haste.  Living around civil engineers for years at university didn’t teach me what subsidence means; within weeks in Tajikistan I couldn’t help but learn what it means, as I traveled over road after sunken road that were sinking due to poor engineering.  I googled potential ways to avoid this in about 0.45 seconds, but why bother when you can just let the road fall apart, right?

There’s lots to love about this odd, little obscure mountainous country.  The inability to make things work ain’t one of them.


A SIDE NOTE: According to the VOA, among others, there was a significant earthquake in the Vanch district of Tajikistan, about 400 km from Dushanbe.  If my friends who read about the earthquake from abroad hadn’t asked if I was okay, I wouldn’t have known a thing about it.  We didn’t feel a thing in Dushanbe.  Luckily, it doesn’t appear anyone was killed in this latest quake.

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View to the Mountains in Faizabad

It is starting to get a bit chilly here, with temperatures in the 30’s for the past several days.  We even had a bit of snow in Dushanbe last week, although it didn’t stick.

But in the countryside, even relatively close to the city, it feels much colder.  The photo above is from Faizabad, about 60 km east of Dushanbe, and you can almost feel the chill seep out of the screen.  I can take it, seven years in Ithaca made sure of that, and I have modern conveniences like a heater in my bedroom.  The people in Faizabad don’t have such conveniences, by and large.  Hell, a fair number of people in that district don’t have running water.

And even if they did have all the amenities, the government hasn’t turned on the heat yet this year.  For anyone.  Thanks Uzbekistan!  Thanks misplaced priorities!

This could be a long winter.  Not for me; I can check into the Hyatt if worse comes to worst.  The people of Faizabad can’t.

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Thank you Hellas!
Thanks Hellas!

Once you pop, you can’t stop.  Yes, it’s a Pringles ad, but it also is true for blog stats.

So indulge me for a bit more navel gazing.  Shortly after my plea for a site visit, Greece, or one random Greek dude, stepped up and visited this blog.  Where have you gone, Belarus (the ancestral home of my paternal side’s maternal side)?  I turn my lonely eyes to you.  BTW, the postcard offer for Greeks and Belarusians still stands: leave a comment on here and subsequently e-mail me your address, and I’ll send you a postcard from lovely Dushanbe.

Meanwhile, I’ll put up some more interesting stuff soon.

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