Monday, May 31, 2010

"Let no one shirk..."

I realize that I haven't talked much yet about the house-building in Tajikistan. There was so much more to the Habitat trip than the house-building of course, which is part of the point. For example, the man of the house where we worked? Could do the work of five of us, in less time. Maybe with one of his hands tied behind his back.

We were in the village of Shulonak in the Rasht valley, twenty minutes or so drive down the road from the Garm city center. (Don't forget that when I say "city" center I'm just teasing you a little bit. Besides the center, there ain't much city. I'll get the Garm pictures up here any day now so you can have a look.) This being a super-mountainous country, it's prone to earthquakes and has had some that damaged a lot of homes. It also happens to be a place where the mulberry trees grow plentifully. And just like that, Habitat is working with families to restore damaged homes, rebuilding the mud walls and reinforcing them with mulberry.

Tying the mulberry into reinforcing grids was my favorite job - because it was easier, I confess, than the other choices. The other choices required a whole lot of arm muscle and a whole lot of mud. I pitifully lacked the former, but was rather quickly plunged into the latter.

I spent the entire first day and half of the next day flinging mud at the wall frame of a house. This is not as easy as it sounds. You have to pick up very large clumps of heavy mud. You have to fling them - hard - with one arm. The mud sticks with a kind of spreading splotch, you hope. Sometimes it falls. Falling is not so good. It takes a while to get the hang of throwing the mud. After you throw the mud for a while, you start to empathize with baseball pitchers. If you're right-handed, like me, you feel it not just in your right upper arm but also in your left hamstring. You try to keep your form good so you don't also feel it too much in your back.

By the middle of day two, I pointed out that major league pitchers are usually given rest and not asked to pitch two days in a row. I was seriously in need of a bullpen.

But like I said, our homeowner shepherd, who was not out tending his flock because he was working with us on rebuilding and reinforcing the walls (his brother was substituting as the flock tender, we were told), was so much stronger than us it was kind of pitiful. He could cover a ten-square-foot area of wall in the time it took us to do two square feet, I swear. The first day he would watch for a bit, then step in to demonstrate his technique when he just couldn't take it anymore. Then he would go outside to put the mud-mixing crew to shame. I also tried my hand at that mixing job, the next day. Bad idea - that took even more muscle! I need to do some serious pull-ups before my next Habitat trip.

The homeowner's niece, who also lives around there with the family in the next house up the hill, was around a lot. She's about 18, and she brought us bread for lunch and helped watch the two small boys, and just generally hung around sometimes. On the first day, after a morning of building curiosity, she finally came up and started talking to me. Of course, she spoke in Tajik. I didn't have a flying clue what she was saying except I caught "Tojiki" (Tajik) and knew she referred to the mud and walls at some point. Mind you, I was working in a mud-splattered t-shirt and jeans, goggles, a backwards cap perched on my head, and sopping wet muddy gloves. I kind of looked like an alien, or possibly like someone fighting aliens in a terrible movie. After I summoned our translator, I learned that she was asking, "Why are you [a female] doing such dirty work?" Good question, sister friend.

Over the next few days we got to be pretty friendly with the family. By the third day, we were teaching our homeowner and some others to sing "Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes." Not a particularly brilliant choice, but one that we all knew and it did have some English vocabulary-learning potential. He totally dug it. He requested it from us many more times that day and the next day. We even performed it for his wife and for the grandma patriarch of the family at some point. I also took my turn performing some classic Tajik song they taught me line by line. I bet I sounded like a total idiot. It was awesome.

The two young boys were adorable. They hung around a lot too, usually being cute, occasionally causing some trouble. The two-year-old wandered off at one point, making it all the way to the village school before niece went to retrieve him. The four-year-old schooled us all in donkey-riding. He also climbed the dirt mountain that awaited mud mixing, and then he began throwing big dirt clots around. Inspired, I grabbed one of the mulberry sticks and motioned for him to throw the clot my way. When I made contact, his face lit up and we had a new favorite game. I hope he gets to play baseball someday! He was totally into it. Maybe he should have been inside throwing mud with us, too.

So while this Habitat trip, much like my first Global Village build, totally reminded me how little upper body strength I have, it also reminded me that when it comes to traveling and exchanging interactions with people, there is always some "work" that any of us can do, despite our weaknesses.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Slippery Slopes

We spent a lot of time on the road from Dushanbe to Garm. The road back from Garm to Dushanbe took far less time. It always happens that way.

The time we spent on the road was epic. We were a dozen Habitat volunteers, plus our three new Tajik friends: the local affiliate coordinator of our trip, another translator, and our hilarious driver. I'm rather glad our driver has a sense of humor, now that I've seen the road. Even though I went in fully expecting a treacherous mountain and dangerous curves, I was blown away by some of the stretches of this particular dirt road, or should I say mud road.

With much hilarity, we bounced and jolted along, the four of us who sat across the back seat of the van clinging and bouncing and laughing as each hairpin brought us to yet another perilous perch. What could you do but gaze at the muddy river below, trying to guess how deep it was, and trying to estimate how good your chances were of swimming out of it once the van inevitably crash landed there?

Then after a couple of hours, with the promise that a couple more hours remained, we came to a grinding halt. A mudslide had blocked the road ahead, and we pulled up alongside the line of cars waiting for it to be cleared. Of course, being totally foreign and not understanding the language, we didn't know at first what was happening. Most of us disembarked from the van, joining the other passengers from other vehicles who stood around gazing at the blocked road. Men were the majority of the chatting crowd, but our group had more women, so we added a little gender diversity to the mix, not that anyone really told us what was going on. The stares were somewhat friendly, though.

Eventually we learned that "a machine" was coming to clear the blocked road. When? Who knew? Visions of staying the night on this mountain pass danced through my head. We all had snacks in our backpacks and layers to wear, but try as I might, I couldn't really come up with a way for fifteen of us to sleep in that van, unless we just sat in our seats taking airplane naps.

Lo and behold, while some team members found a friendly hillside resident who allowed the use of his bathroom, language barrier negotiations and all, the promised machine arrived and our path was cleared. Of course, we still had kilometers to go before we could sleep.

After winding our way along this highway, the rushing muddy currents below us, I had a much better understanding of the village in Three Cups of Tea that told Greg Mortenson, "No, for reals, a school would be awesome, but we actually totally need a bridge first. Then a school."

Mud continued to be a theme of our trip, but later on it would be us doing the slinging, in more ways than one. Stay tuned for those tales of dirty deeds and heartbreak.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rhymes with folio

So there we were in the Istanbul airport, having finished a delicious Burger King dinner (OK, so the sandwich choices were really limited, don't hate), ready to proceed to the gate for our departure to Dushanbe. I had been talking about Starbucks a lot, fully aware that I would not encounter much iced coffee while in Tajikistan, so I went to purchase a final grande iced latte while other group members went variously to smoke, powder their noses, or proceed to the gate.

In the Istanbul airport, you pass through one security checkpoint and passport control to get into the international departures area, and we had already gone through all that, but then you have to go through another individual gate checkpoint. I hurried to this final line, then stood there waiting, breathlessly enjoying my iced coffee and chatting amicably with some random United Statesian guys I found behind me who were off to visit their expat buddy in Tajikistan.

As I got to the conveyor belt, my stream of happy chatter was suddenly interrupted by a tall man in a very official-looking orange vest who declared to each passenger, "We have had some polio problem in Tajikistan. You may have an oral vaccine before you get on the plane. Now you will declare whether you want the vaccine, yes or no."

I'm sorry - what? Polio? Polio? The man's English was pretty good, but didn't we long since eradicate that shit? The answer, for your information, is no. It remains endemic in four countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. That last one there is apparently to blame for spreading a little virus over the border into southern Tajikistan (well, and the obvious problem of poverty and many, many children not having vaccinations, apparently). People from a lot of nations were going to be on this flight. The vaccine was undoubtedly needed by few to none of us.

But these sorts of rational facts were not at all what was going through my head at this gate checkpoint, while the man in the orange vest (Tajik? Turkish? World Health? U.N.?) looked me in the eye waiting for my answer. Instead what was going through me head was, still, "Polio?!"

The next thing that went through my head was, quite simply, "I don't know!" Did I need a vaccine? When did I have a polio vaccine? Are they good for life? Are you sure we haven't eradicated this? Growing up in the U.S., one thinks very little about polio, unless one is admiring FDR's triumphant life. Wait, was it eradicated during out parents' generation? Did I even have a polio vaccine? OK, now I was starting to get paranoid.

The United Statesians behind me were no help. One was a military brat who grew up everywhere and has been vaccinated for everything many times over. In front of me were a few African businessmen (I later learned they were a few of the many passengers traveling to Dushanbe as delegates to some Islamic nations conference) who were highly amused by me as I peppered Orange Vest Official with questions: "Well, do I need it? Did I get sufficiently vaccinated in the U.S. as a child? How long does it last? What if I say no, can I change mind?"

"You will now declare to me 'yes' or 'no,'" he repeated.

Oh my. My group leader and U.S. cohorts had long since passed through to the gate seating area, while I was off getting this beloved iced coffee drink. Had they said they'd take the vaccine? I finally told the man yes, then barely noticed my bag going along the conveyor belt as I rushed through found them all in gate area seats.

"Um, I'm sorry, polio?! What's happening?" I said. I was met with blank looks. "Polio...vaccine...the orange vest man..." Nope, nothing. Obviously, the man had not talked to those who reached the gate early and had only just started to ask individual passengers. So now, my fellow Habitatters also thought I was crazy, along with Orange Vest Official and the random Africans. A funny thing happens once the paranoid thoughts start flying (and when I have just slammed a grande espresso drink in, like, ten minutes): I need a very specific, very strong reassurance to come back down. I got none of that. Instead I got a lot of, "Oh, you're probably fine."

Probably fine? This is polio we're talking about! Sure, I had been cavalier about the CDC-recommended typhoid vaccine (i.e., I didn't get it), but polio? The very word is scary. Earlier that day I had said something about "NPR" and one of the peeps thought I had said "FDR." Was that a sign?

Finally, I did what I had been resisting doing since leaving the U.S. I turned on my cell phone and called my mother, at $2.80 per minute, to demand information about my polio vaccines(s). Mind you, I wanted to keep the phone call to a few dollars, so I basically said, "I'm going to make this very brief and then hang up but have I been vaccinated for polio? Are you sure? When? You're sure it was polio, right? Does it last forever? OK, gotta get on a plane to Tajikistan. Bye!" Mom must have loved that one. Would it take her mind off the fact that Tajikistan borders Afghanistan?

Finally, my group members' indifference convinced me I didn't need it, so I began to worry that as we boarded, they wouldn't let me change my mind and would force it upon me anyway. That wasn't a problem, but then - then! - after we passed through Orange Vested Vaccine Distributing Women who was kicking it in front of the jetway with gloved hands and a little cooler full of oral vaccine, I see that another group member, the feisty and fabulous Jane, took the vaccine! Aargh! I asked her if she hadn't already had one? "Sure," she replied, "I re-upped!" This unleashed a new round of paranoia, although I drew further reassurance from a Persian(?) woman who had become involved with my dilemma at our seats. She was on the whole more interested in consoling me than my teammates were, I have to say.

On the plane, I totally had to take myself down a notch. I rather enjoyed the flight, a wide-bodied Turkish Airlines jet with meal, snack, individual screens, movie choices, games, free socks and blindfold, and so on. We arrived in Dushanbe around 2:30 a.m., and as we waited to pass through immigration, we chatted it up with a British woman who works for the WHO and was in Dushanbe for a conference! Oh, she would have all the answers! Should I have got the vaccine? Sure, she said. Crap!

She also went on to tell us a few more things about it. She had heard about the polio outbreak before leaving England, from a colleague, so she got her "polio jab" as she put it before leaving home. It's basically spread through contaminated water, the outbreak in Dushanbe had mainly affected children (240 of them at that time; I've since seen numbers above 500), and we would probably be fine because we were off to a rural village in the other direction, safely away from the outbreak in the city.

Yikes. You could not get me out of Dushanbe fast enough after all that! (By the time we returned after the build, I was much more appreciative of Dushanbe, and I love it, polio notwithstanding). It was a bizarre experience made all the more unsettling for myself by my penchant for dramatic flailing in the face of decision-making. My mother, kindly, e-mailed me with a list of my polio vaccination and booster dates, which she looked up after my hurried phone call. In the future, like when I eventually finally go to India someday, maybe I'll get an adult booster.

On the return flight to Istanbul, while we stood waiting to de-plane, a flight attendant made an announcement in Turkish: "something-something-Turkish-something-something-polio vaccine-something-something." I caught a fellow team member's eye and just laughed. Good ol' polio vaccine at the gate. This time I walked past the woman and calmly said, "No thanks."

Seriously, polio!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I Went to the Mountains

I am back from Tajikistan, with so much to say! Not the least of which is how amusing it was to watch the slightly bored U.S. Customs and Border people at O'Hare go through the motions of blah-blah, young woman, flight from Europe, countries visited...oh, Tajikistan? They didn't really subject me to much other than an extra question or two about how many days I spent there. I guess a little Habitat trip wasn't enough to raise any flags, polio outbreaks notwithstanding (more on that later).

Well, I can honestly say that hands down the most amazing part of my trip was catching a glimpse of the many-thousand-meters peaks you can see in this picture, way off in the distance, at the same height as the clouds. In an instant, I had a better understanding of what my boy Jon Krakauer and Three Cups of Tea's Greg Mortenson had described so well. What you see above is the view from a little hillside a few minutes walk from "downtown" Garm (Garm itself being approximately the size of a postage stamp). One morning before going to work on our house building/restoring, three other team members and I rose at 5:45 a.m. to stroll up the hill. We had a beautiful view of the town after only a few minutes of walking up, but after half an hour or so I was high enough to see the mountains behind the mountains behind the mountains.

Garm is surrounded by the green foothills, behind which we could see mountains with snow on them, mixed with brown mountainside peeking through the patches of snow. We had called these green foothills and brown-with-snow mountains very beautiful, but were still told we were seeing only the little mountains. It was hard to imagine that, until I found myself standing alone on a boulder on a grassy, muddy hillside; I turned around and caught my first glimpse of craggy, entirely snow covered peaks. Peaks that are best friends with mountains like Everest. Peaks that disappeared into the clouds as I stood there staring at them. Peaks that changed me.

You can just make them out in this cell phone photo, so I understand if you don't have quite the revelatory experience I had on the mountainside. All I can say is that it is worth any cost to get yourself to the Himalaya, Pamir, or these suburbs of the Pamir. One glimpse made all my effort to travel to Tajikistan entirely worth it.

Stay tuned for more stories. Next up: we have nothing to fear but polio itself!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Istanbul not Constantınople

Total cheap shot obvıous tıtle. What can I say: I thınk I am usıng the wrong letter i on the keyboard too. And I can´t fınd the comma!

Just want to report that I am ın Istanbul and so far ıt strıkes me as a fabulous cıty! Off the top of my head ıt remınded me of a foreıgn-feelıng Calıfornia.

Defınıtely mixing ıt up wıth the two letter i keys.

Best thıngs about Turkey so far - gorgeous mosque archıtecture and delıcıous breakfast!
No worst thıng although I am experıencıng my first Europe-ocean-flıght jet lag.

Almost Tajikistan time!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

And she's off!

Time to go a-Habitatting! On my way out of the country, I just want to say a few things. This is not the first time I have traveled on my birthday, nor the first time I have been in another country on my birthday, but I do believe it is my first time actually flying across an ocean on my birthday.

I would also like to say that Habitat works with a travel agency in Minnesota to arrange our stop in Istanbul and the Istanbul-Dushanbe flight, and I have been communicating with the woman at that agency, Travel Beyond, for the last few months. She is in Wayzata, Minnesota. Well, I had never heard of Wayzata other than this encounter, or so I thought, but I JUST realized upon reading the latest EW, which was full to the brim of Lost goodness (unlike this week's episode of Lost itself), that Henry Gale's driver license (remember that? Ben in the hatch...Sayid found the actual Henry's license...) is a Wayzata, Minnesota address! What! Suddenly I became a little suspicious about this "Travel Beyond" from Wayzata. Where exactly is she sending me?

More importantly, I truly want to thank once again everyone who so generously donated to the cause! Karen (more than once!), Mara (happy bday!), Kamron, Joe, Angela, Joyce (thanks for the shout-out), Chet, Michele, Erin, Ami, Christi (and all the encouragement), Stephanie, Dorine, Michael, Steve, Bob (so generous!), Troy, Kristal (caffeine...), Lillian (see you soon), Megan, Renee (and spreading the word), Sarah, Tracy, Melissa, Heather (congrats on the bar!), Katie, Robin, William, Jade, Joshua, Jen (you do good work), Lauren & Paul, Wendy, Nilay, Amy's beautiful gift this week, and not to forget the generosity of law professors Joanna, Ivy, Norman, and Lauris. I hope I haven't left anyone out. I hope you all know what a wonderful cause you have helped.

Two more things. If you are bored today I suggest you enjoy the #LOSTjokes on Twitter, and finally, this is a serious candidate for my new favorite web site.

Off I go!

Friday, May 07, 2010

It's going to be a rough one

Soon, I will sleep, because not-quite-as-soon I will wake up, because then we will head to downtown Grand Rapids to run the River Bank Run, the annual 25K race for which thousands flock to West Michigan. Only, that whole weather thing? The one where it would be nice to have, you know, a little sun and a few clouds and maybe a temperature between 56-64 degrees? Yeah, no.

Instead the temperature is plummeting and the forecast is wind, rain, and other nasty pelting coldness. And here I was worried that my favorite running shirt would be too warm! Instead, it might be too thin and I might have to upgrade to the warmer, thicker one. As for the rain itself, I'm toast. I have a headband and gloves, but no hat and no rain gear. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns are having a rough go of it their own selves tonight, although they persevere (as will I!) You know, NBA refs have their fair share of issues and people have certainly analyzed and/or complained about them enough that I don't really need to re-open that debate, but I will say this: if I were going to "fix" the NBA refereeing, I would sit all those nice young men down and give them a damn physics lesson. It's as if they know nothing about trajectory and laws of motion and force. When two objects are moving at each other and they collide, if one then falls down it doesn't mean the other flagrantly fouled him. I mean, sure, energy and motion can be tough. But have you ever played pool for goodness' sake?

I love the Suns this year. I have hope! I, however, will be missing out on some sports watching due to jetting off to Tajikistan soon. It's kind of a nice way to cap off the spring of training, training, training, so much running and training for this 25K. Which is now going to be in the rain, wind, maybe even snow, they said. Ugh.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Road Less Planned

So, I like to be spontaneous. We knew this. But tonight I realized it in a different way. You may remember that I am leaving soon for Tajikistan. Really soon! Gulp! There have been so many details to hammer into place (get it? Habitat for Humanity trip, hammer, get it?) for this excursion that I have really just had no time to do anything like actually get excited, because every day there is something else - a flight to book, a flight that doesn't get booked, a credit card problem, a hefty visa application fee, a requirement here, a requirement there, the fundraising, the eternal fundraising, the supplies, etc. etc. Not to mention trying to pick up a few words in not one, not two, but three languages. (Tajik, Russian, and Turkish, for our days in Istanbul on the way to and fro. Thank goodness my flight layovers are in Dublin and London, eh.)

Seriously, it was just today when it hit me for the first time how soon I am going. This despite the emails, oh so many emails, among the Habitat group members about the Tajikistan and Istanbul arrangements. Tonight, I realized that I am leaving in nine days!

I waited, upon realizing this, for a bit of panic to set in. After all, I'm traveling around the world to a super remote place -- and no, I am not taking malaria pills this time. ewww -- and about to work really hard hammering nails or reinforcing walls or restoring roofs or something along these lines. Let's see if I've done the things I probably should have done by now:

Packed. Uh - no.
Made a list of things to pack. Well, in my head. Does that count?
Acquired all the supplies on that list of things to pack. Maybe one third.
Photocopied i.d., cards, passport, etc. for reference in case of loss. No.
Left those copies + copies of itinerary with family/emergency contact(s). Really planning to do this. Totally.
Booked plane tickets. YES! This was so complicated. I can't even get into it. Just - so very complicated. Not because I think booking flights is complicated, but because my particular situation this past month was just a very long story with that.
Accommodations. Mostly taken care of through the Habitat trip; the additional night in Istanbul is also being booked for me by our tour handler - who emailed TODAY to tell me about a switch in hotels. Hello! I am not the only fan of the last minute here.
Learned the language(s). Nimnoga!
Figured out what to read/which books to bring. In progress.
Camera. Um - what to do, what to do. My cell phone will hold about ten pictures.

So you can see where my head's at. It occurred to me today that in searching for some semblance of panic, there was none to be found. In fact, I found myself thinking, the only reason I have been thinking about this trip as long as I have is that I had to in order to be able to go on it. Now, of course I can understand that a volunteer trip needs to be planned, don't get me wrong. But I realized that I can think of nothing more appealing than just up and going to Tajikistan next week. The notion of it is wonderful. As long as I have contact lenses, shoes, a scarf and a credit card, I will get by.

It reminds me of when I went to Korea. Can I help it if things fall into place at the last minute? It's not the very last minute. I have rarely gone on a totally whimsical unplanned trip -- maybe a couple drives from Phoenix to San Diego or Utah back in the day. If nothing else, airfare precludes truly last minute adventures for me these days. But what I find interesting is how many people I know who can't do this at all, mentally, who would be quaking in their boots if they were about to jet around the world without all the details solidly in place and double- and triple-checked.

But here's the psychological twist: I actually really like planning. In fact, I prefer planning to executing. Not with travel, necessarily, but with, just, you know, things. I like to plan them. I like to make lists and plot out the goals to hit and think of things to do. Actually doing them is nowhere near as fun. Unless it's taking a trip, I guess. Traveling and writing are the only two things that when I'm doing them, I don't feel like I should be doing something else.

The reason for my aversion to cooking has got to be in here somewhere. Ditto my utter inability to not procrastinate writing a paper. I'll leave that to the psychologists. I'm going to go read Moby Dick and not do anything about Tajikistan until the morning.