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Dispatch #1, June 12th, 2005 PDF Print E-mail
The spigots spit out brown foul-smelling water and the toilets don’t flush. My introduction to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

On the other hand, the city has charm. There are giant trees lining the broad streets and down the middle of the main street is grass and a sidewalk – lined with even more old trees and park benches. I arrived in the city at midnight and those tall trees came as a pleasant surprise – it wasn’t your typical Soviet style city – at least the ones that I had become familiar with in the past two years. Dushanbe was lush with lots of greenery – and flowers.

After a restful night – I fell asleep to the sound of heavy rain – I awoke to a beautiful sunny day and was invited on a drive to the countryside. As we headed east out of the city, women squatted along the road in their long dresses and head scarves – selling a variety of fruit – fresh picked strawberries, cherries, plums and peaches.  Two kilos of cherries cost about a buck fifty – while a dollar bought about three or four kilos of strawberries.

The fruit sellers had set up their stand near a mountain pass where – once on the other side we could see a beautiful green river flowing along the town of Nurek – about 60 kilometers east of Dushanbe.  Beneath the statue of Lenin – in the town square – were giant rose gardens. Three young boys, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, sat on a nearby park bench. We offered them cookies as a snack and as their friends rode by on bicycles – the boys hid the cookies in their pockets and grinned at us. 

As we drove down to the river’s edge, we spotted two men making bricks – one shoveled dirt and the other mixed it with water and straw and placed the mixture in a metal frame – about six inches deep and twelve inches wide. They had made at least 50 – and planned to use them in a new building. If the weather remained dry for at least a week, the bricks would be strong enough to start construction.

Further along the riverbank, an older man motioned us into his garden – where he gave us free cherries from his tree. They were a bit sour, but tasty.

Tiny figs were just beginning to appear on his four or five fig trees, thumb-sized pomegranates were growing from a neighboring tree – as were walnuts. It was like a walk in the Garden of Eden.

Back on the main road heading toward Dushanbe, we encountered a variety of livestock on the road – pregnant cows, donkeys and goats. In the distance, on the sheer cliffs that surrounded this river valley, cows and goats picked grass on either side of a pathway that was not more than a foot wide. The animals looked like tiny mushrooms dotting the vast landscape of snow-capped mountains, steep green hillsides and large red dirt gulleys.

Later, at dinner at an Armenian restaurant, where we ate flat bread and fresh onions and cilantro and yogurt, I happened to ask my colleagues if there is a decent Italian restaurant in Dushanbe. They both look at each other and then said “not really.”

There is an Italian place, but my Italian colleague said don’t waste your time. When you walk in, a very short person – either in a tux or a clown outfit depending on the day - takes your picture – and before your meal arrives you are asked to write something nice about the restaurant – which will then be pasted below the picture and into a notebook along with the menu so future customers can read your positive comments and look at your smiling face.

I was then told by my Italian dining partner that when your food does arrive, it is never what you asked for and it arrives very late. For instance, if you ordered pizza, instead of getting the whole pizza, you might get one slice – and it might not even be pizza – and it will probably be cold. Of course, by this time, you probably want to change your comments, but it is too late.

I was told that one person from the German Embassy, out of sheer frustration, walked out without paying. The next day, his picture appeared in the menu with the words “cheap skate” written under the photo – and an arrow pointing at his picture.

It’s definitely an interesting marketing technique.

There were no pictures tonight at the Armenian restaurant. Our food arrived on time and it was delicious – it had been a picture perfect day!