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Photo of me on the Tajik/Afghan frontier
That's a minefield and Afghanistan in the background. The sign is self explanatory.


Hi! †I'm Joe Parris, a retired FBI Agent and current U.S. Foreign Service trailing spouse. Melanie, my bride of 25 years, and I live in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, the smallest and poorest of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics. †Melanie works at the U.S. Embassy and I work there part time.

This weblog is my online journal of life abroad and sometimes life in general.††Mostly, it's a blog about the†strangeness†of being in Tajikistan which is about as far down the†rabbit hole as one can get.

I'll also share some photographs and†exercise†my†God given†right to†self-indulgent†pontification. †Not that, I hasten to add, parenthetically, all who blog are self indulgent.

I'm hoping to hone my writing skills as well. †Thirty†years of writing investigative reports left me on top of my game as far as a dry, factual and accurate recounting of events is concerned, but left little room for self expression.

Whether you agree or disagree with what I write, like it or hate it, let me know. †I'd love to here from you.

Joe Parris
Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Expatriates, Single Malt, the Burns Supper, and All Things U.K.
While not everyoneís cup of tea, I love small diplomatic posts and the small expatriate ďexpatĒ communities that go with them. Dushanbe is such a place, and Iím loving every second of it despite the sometimes spartan living conditions.

Iíve noticed that in such small posts, the expat community in general, and the American expats in particular, tend to socially gravitate toward the Brits and start to affect British airs. Iíve known a few American expats who behaved as if they were assigned to the British High Commission in the days of the Raj. Iím not that bad, but I have joined the Dushanbe Whiskey Order and I will attend the annual Burns Supper this Saturday night.

The Dushanbe Whiskey Order meets every five-to-six weeks and is a serious single malt whisky tasting organization. The orderís Drinkmaster is, of course, a Brit.

The annual Burns Supper is held on or about the January 25th birthday of Robert Burns, the immortal Scottish bard. The Burns Supper celebrates the life and works of ďThe Bard,Ē and a traditional Burns Supper format has evolved over the years. There are recitations, formal toasts, haggis, and of course, plenty of single malt. I really look forward to this event, and itís an excuse to drag out my Robertson (momís maiden name) tartan bow tie and cummerbund.

The last Dushanbe Whisky Order conclave got a bit raucous as the evening wore on. Itís a serious organization, but can only be serious to a point. That point seems to be about the third whisky sampled. It was at about that time when the conclave conversation turned to the upcoming Burns Supper.

A British member told a ďBurnsĒ joke which I will try to convey in writing. It would be ever so much more funny told aloud, but (1) I donít know how to put audio on this blog; and, (2) being a mere savage from the former colonies, I'd never get the accents right. So, this joke is probably best conveyed by me in written form.

I hope you find this as funny as I did. I shot single malt out my nose I laughed so hard when I heard it. Here goes:

The British Prime Minister was visiting a military hospital outside London. He was there to decorate several wounded soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan having acquitted themselves there with bravery and distinction. The P.M. approached the bed of the first soldier, leaned down, pinned the medal to the heavily bandaged sergeant's pajama shirt, and then congratulated the man for his service to Queen and country. No sooner than the P.M. finished speaking, the sergeant exploded into an animated frenzy, and from his mouth spewed spittle and a stream of unintelligible garbled, guttural, gibberish of aspirated vowels and swallowed consonants. The perplexed P.M., ever the smooth politician, just smiled, shook the sergeant's one un-bandaged hand and said "right, then, carry on." The P.M. then tuned, knelt, and decorated the wounded soldier in the next bed, again thanking him for his service and bravery. As before, just as soon as the P.M. finished speaking, the soldier became animated and loudly engaged the P.M. with gibberish and spittle. This time, the P.M. was obviously taken aback and the moment became awkward. This was not going according to plan. It was at that moment when one of the P.M.'s aids whispered in his ear. "I'm terribly sorry sir," said the aid, "I forgot to tell you, this is a ĎBurnsí unit."

Happy birthday, Mr. Burns.

8:33 pm pst

You Can Run but You Can't Hide!
Iím not sure how, but they found me here in Tajikistan. The Georgia State Alumni Association magazine arrived in the infrequent diplomatic mail pouch last week along with about a hundred late Christmas cards.

How do they do that?

I thought that I had given them the slip. Somewhere between the Washington and Romania moves, I did manage to fall of the alumni association radar. Iíve given them the slip before but I never seem to get too far.

As a FBI Agent, I spent years conducting interstate and international fugitive investigations. Some I caught; some I never did catch, but all-in-all my record was better than fair. If I could have had the locate rate of even a small college alumni association, I would have been one fugitive catchiní phenomenon.

Itís too bad that most FBI fugitives arenít college graduates. I could have just called the fugitiveís alumni office and asked for his or her address.

So, to all you college graduates out there who are contemplating a life of crime, remember, you may be able to outrun the FBI, but youíll never be able to truly hide from the alumni association. You may end up being chased by a G-man smart enough to give your alumni office a call to find out where you are.

I wonder how long you would languish in prison before the alumni association managed to find you there? Iím sure that ďBubba,Ē your sweaty cellmate, would enjoy reading your alumni magazine.

4:35 am pst

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Public Housing on the Klingon Home World
If Soviet architecture was bad (it was), then post-Soviet architecture is even worse. Iíve been waiting to get some pictures of this building before writing about it. Iíve now got the pictures, so here goes.

One evening, after having been in Tajikistan only a few days, I was driving Melanie home from the embassy. As we rounded a curve on the river road that leads to our street (and eventually to Uzbekistan), I saw it, a building, but not just any building. This was the worst building ever built. I saw it and almost lost control of the car. Once recovered, all I could think to say was ďoh my God, Iím now living on the Klingon home world!" I tried to look up how to say that in Klingon but couldnít find it. I did learn that ďHeghlu'meH QaQ jajvamĒ means, ďthis is a good day to die,Ē which, strangely enough, sounds very similar to the same phrase in Tajik.

I digress.

The building that had so unnerved me is a massive, imposing, stark-gray, concrete monstrosity of an apartment building of at least ten thousand units. If there is public housing on Klingon, this is what it looks like. Iím not sure that there is a recognized architectural style for this building, but Iím going to call it Space Exploration Gothic. If Architectural Digest had an architectural ďdonítsĒ column (like the fashion magazines with the pictures of badly dressed women with their eyes blacked out), this building would make the top ten.

I pass this building at least once a day and fight off a shudder on each pass. I do take some comfort in knowing what the Klingons would say to the architect and general contractor.

ďYou are without honor.Ē

(If you hadn't figured it out, the writer is an unrepentant Trekkie.)

5:00 am pst

Friday, January 2, 2009

I've Changed My Mind about Facebook
I tried starting this blog on Facebook but found that site not really geared to serious blogging or even geared to my blog, certainly not serious. Also, I felt somewhere between a little creepy to a bit silly to be on Facebook. It was my impression, probably based on my law enforcement perceptions and experiences, that social networking sites are for the plugged-in, tween to college-age set, and any middle-aged man on one of these sites is most probably an on-line predator.

The whole cyber-creep issue aside, there were the nagging doubts concerning is-this-just-silly? Really, who am I kidding? I'm a grumpy WASP and middle-aged Republican, not some artsy, disaffected student full of late-adolescent/early adult angst.

I worried about the Facebook thing being some sick attempt to recapture lost youth? Or, the on-line ranting of a disaffected, grumpy Republican full of middle-age angst. But, no, when I gave that more thought I realized it wasn't possible. You can't use disaffected and Republican in the same sentence (there may even be a rule of grammar covering that) and angst would imply that I care. I don't, which brings me back to the self indulgence I mentioned in my welcome blog.

While I was fretting over all these weighty issues a funny thing happened. I started using Facebook. I found college and high school friends I lost touch with more years ago than I care to mention. I found that there were lots of middle-age people on Facebook, many I know. I found the instant connections to be fun and more than a little habit forming.

I found that Facebook is the crack cocaine of the cyber world and I WANT MORE!
10:28 pm pst

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The flood after the Marine Ball
We got home from the annual U.S. Embassy Marine Ball a little before midnight, Saturday night. When I opened the front door we heard what sounded like Niagara Falls in our bedroom. One of the pipes going to the sink in the master bathroom had broken upstream of the sink cutoff valve. The bathroom was under about a half inch of water and the large area rug in the bedroom had absorbed an amazing amount of water.

This is where I need to mention that we have two basements, one called the basement and one called the bilge. The "basement" side is a normal (ok, it's in Central Asia, so it's far from normal) basement. Our freezer is down there and there's a very nice room with wooden shelving lining the walls that makes for wonderful storage. That room has a split-pack HVAC unit and can be kept incredibly dry. We hope that someday it returns to a dry state (dry state as in humidity, not as in Mississippi), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The other basement, or "bilge" is accessed off of the laundry room. The laundry room is attached to one end of the house but to get to it you have to go out the front door, down one side of the courtyard, and up a flight of steps. In the laundry room floor is a heavy steel door/hatch. The hatch opens --with no small amount of upper body strength-- to reveal a steeply pitched, ladder type stair like one would find in the lower reaches of a large ship. This other basement, or bilge as we call it to keep it straight from the "normal" basement, is where all the mechanical stuff is located and a dark, filthy maze of pipes, boilers, tanks, wires and electrical boxes. It's a mildly frightening place and Melanie all but refuses to go down there.

So, as Melanie is running around the bedroom and bath with her full-length gown pulled up around her knees trying to mitigate the ever rising waters, I'm climbing down into the bilge in black tie. I remember thinking at the time that I'm way overdressed and that this would be funny if it was happening to someone else.

I'm sure everyone has experienced a household flood at some point, so I won't go into the boring details. I got the water shut off, the water was mopped up, and Sunday was pissed away drying out the bedroom rug. Oh, I did forget to mention the other exciting aspect of our little domestic disaster. Sitting on the floor next to the offending sink is a 220/110V step-down transformer/power regulator unit, like many things, about the size of a bread box. I'm glad that I was the first one into the flooded bathroom and I'm glad that my opera pumps have leather soles.

Is it wrong that a man actually owns a pair of opera pumps? I only ask because worrying about this out loud makes the fact that I do own them seem less gay, but I digress.

Sunday night, we discovered the heretofore normal and dry basement area under one to two inches of water as a result of the bathroom flood. The water on the basement floor would have been deeper had much of it not been absorbed by the 50 moving boxes and hundred-plus pounds of packing paper we saved from our move out here.

Melanie was told that the packing materials that will be used by the local moving contractor upon our departure are for crap. Since we had that nice, dry space, it seemed like a good idea to save as much of the good quality, stateside packing material as we could. I spent weeks (yes, weeks!) carefully flattening out sheets of packing paper on the dining room table as I unpacked the moving boxes. The embassy sanitation crew hauled away the sodden mess on Tuesday and a lessor man would have cried.
9:11 pm pst

Tajik Sunday drive looking for fall color
We haven't done anything particularly exotic lately (beyond living in Central Asia). We did take a leaf drive up north of Dushanbe through the Varzov Valley a few weeks ago. Here and there we found some fall color in the occasional small stands of trees in spots where the river widens out of its moonscape gorge a bit. We then took a turn off the main highway (two lane blacktop) on to a more-or-less dirt road that supposedly leads to the village of Takob, home of the one-and-only ski area in Tajikistan. The road meandered through tiny, forgotten villages and the ruins of Soviet industry. When we got up to about the 6,000 foot level, the road became something more like a donkey track and Melanie started pitching a fit. Convinced we must have missed a turn and having less than half a tank of gas, she made me turn around at what we think is the village of Safidorak. A village so remote that -according to the guidebook- the villagers speak Sogdian, an almost dead form of early Farsi, once the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Not exactly the Sunday drive to grandma's. We never did find the ski area.
9:08 pm pst

2009.01.01 | 2008.12.01

Robert Burns

Joe and Melanie at the Burns Supper

Once the alumni magazine finds you, the donation requests can't be far behind.

The moonscape of the Tajik/Afghan frontier

Public Housing on the Klingon Home World

Space Exploration Gothic

Winged gargoyles, always a nice touch

Sometimes, "post-Soviet" is a relative term.
Melanie standing in front of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Tajik girls in their Navrooz holiday finest

A Tajik graybeard and his "pet" waiting for the Navrooz parade to start.

Melanie and me (dressed as a diplomatic pouch) at the Halloween party

There's a story about this coming soon
Sitting atop a destroyed Russian APC at the "25 Heros" Tajik border post.

The Nurek Reservoir, about 45 miles west of Dushanbe

Our embassy house