Ninth Blog. Saturday/Sunday, November 21/22, 2009. Sent on November 23.
For those who are keeping track of these things, you know that it’s been two weeks since we last posted a blog. We just did not have enough news last week to justify taking the time to write, or to presume on your time to read. You may assume that what were adventures in previous weeks, like finding our way back to the same shop in the bazaar to purchase meats, have now become ordinary, and thus not worth writing about. We have tried to speak positively about our environment because it hardly seems fair for a couple of folks from Indiana to knowingly come to and complain about a part of the world that has known more difficulty than the US has ever experienced. This does not mean that we don’t have frustrations. It just means that to this time we have chosen not to dwell on them. But in this blog, we let out of few of our frustrations, so you can know that we are human. Here goes:
1. Power outages. We see long distance electrical lines but have no idea where they come from or go to. I just know that something about the power grid is irregular enough that there are large, portable power generators everywhere. At the university there are 3 of these mammoth generators in back of the building, at least one of which is running all the time, and even with these, there are interruptions . Most of the time these are short –five to ten seconds – sometimes longer. They rarely last long enough that we have time to get a match and light a candle, but once the power goes down, everything has to re-set: the satellite TV signal receiver, the heat pumps, the wireless internet device. (I know. I can just hear someone in much more primitive surroundings say something to the effect, “I would love to trade my 4 hours of daily electricity with their momentary outages.” So please know that I understand that all inconvenience is relative.) Today, Saturday, November 20, the power has shut down 5 or 6 times in the afternoon and evening. Really irritating. People around here are used to it and just keep on going when the power shuts down. But there’s nothing more aggravating than to be in the middle of a lengthy internet related activity, like uploading this blog and its pictures, and have to start over again.
2. A related frustration: lack of band width. Like all internet providers, one of the great problems for the university is keeping up with demand for bandwidth. Give people more and they just use more. For us, bandwidth problems cause us to avoid anything like Facebook. It just takes forever. And the university has blocked the use of YouTube. It would be great to have things download and upload quickly. At home we listened to SomaFM, an internet music source, but here it keeps shutting down as it rebuffers, whatever that is. This feels more like dial up than broadband. (November 25, 2009: Since writing this, we have learned that the amount of bandwidth for the whole university is less than a household in the U.S. would would have available to them. Even with Facebook lite that one person told us about, you can see why responding to Facebook is difficult. Email works well. Write to us at our Anderson University email accounts and we will respond, asking you to shift to our AUIS accounts.)
3. The presence of cheap Chinese goods. If you think Walmart is bad, come here. The stuff that is imported here doesn’t even pretend to obscure where it comes from, and it is so shoddily made. Whether dealing with something as cheap as a potato peeler or expensive as a microwave oven, we have gotten our share of faulty goods. The first microwave oven lasted one month and failed. Of course the store would not take it back. (A strong sense of serving the customer is not uniform. Some places act like they are doing you a favor to be there; other merchants are very generous.) The second one lasted one evening before it shut down, and fortunately the owner of the store made good on it, but for our third microwave oven, we paid a premium price to get a Sanyo from Japan. It continues to work – knock on wood. The students I have talked to about this acknowledge, almost fatalistically, that a lot of the goods available to them are poorly made, whether from China or Iran.
4. Lack of mobility. They have actively discouraged us from buying cars and have provided a fleet of cars and vans and drivers to carry ex-pat faculty and staff to the university and to markets. They have even said that the drivers are on the job until 9:00 p.m., and we should avail ourselves of them in the evening. But the simple fact is that there’s nothing quite like being able to walk from house to garage and take ourselves wherever we want, whenever we want. Some of the drivers have quite good English and we can explain some subtlety, like “can you run by Kurdistan market, then to the bread store and then home.” But for others, it’s got to be simple: “go to villa.” It’s best to leave out articles, and sometimes even verbs so as not to confuse. Even with those whose English is good, we have a sense that when we ask them to take us somewhere in the evening, our request is an inconvenience. Above all, we want mobility in the evening and weekends, because being in the villas is really isolating. There’s no place around here to walk to. (See photo Suli area, snipped from Google Earth, so as to get a sense of the lay of the land. It is about 10 miles from to villas to the university. ) If you double click on the photo, you can get more detail.
5. Food. We are not starving. Far from it. But there are some foods that we just cannot find around here. Oatmeal for example. Brownie mixes. Parmesan cheese. Certain spices like oregano. And even when we find something that is a bit unusual in a store on one shopping expedition, we cannot be sure it will be there next time. The supply lines from Turkey, Iran, Syria or wherever they come from apparently are not consistent.
6. Lack of Starbucks coffee (or any other good coffee like Seattle’s Best.) (You’ll notice that I have put coffee into its own food group.) The local coffee all has cardamom added to it, thus making it undrinkable from my (Carl’s) point of view. I have tried three different brands and have either given them away or thrown them away. To make sure that the supply of coffee that we brought will last us till the end of December when we will be going to Dubai for Christmas break, we limit ourselves to 5 cups a day in our little coffee maker. When that’s gone by 9:30 a.m., I shift to Nescafe instant coffee which is offered free to faculty and staff at the university. This beats drinking plain old hot water, but not by much.
7. Lack of church. There is a Chaldean Christian church in Suli that has its service on Sunday evening, but the service is all in Arabic, so we have not gone. There is also a non-denominational international church that meets in a hotel. We attended once, but will likely not go back. They were genuine in their friendship in greeting us – there are not that many ex-pat Americans around here – but we find it difficult to worship in a context where all of the music is contemporary praise chorus type of music. I know this gripe sounds narrow and uncharitable and I don’t offer it with any pride, but the reality is that we miss Pastor Markle and the organ, choir, and hymns of Park Place Church of God, and the Sunday evening music brought to the church by the AU department of music.
8. The cold and rainy weather. When the weather is nice around here it is really nice. But when it turns foul, it turns really foul: long days of continuous drizzle punctuated occasionally by a thunder storm. I have for years taught in Middle East history courses about how the water of the region tends to fall in the mountains and flow out to the desert plains. When I gave that lecture I would wave generally to that part of the map where the Zagros mountains are located. Now we are living in the very mountains I have been talking about, and it isn’t much fun to get around in the rain. To make matters worse, the concrete sidewalk work around where our offices and classrooms are located was poured in haste, without proper drainage, so the water collects in one and two inch deep ponds that are virtually impossible to avoid as we go from office to classroom.
9. This last item is not a gripe, but rather an observation on differences in taste. We have noticed in furniture stores that the taste around here runs toward, shall we say, the heavily decorated. Imagine over-done French provincial with added decorations. You can imagine, then, our reaction when we went to a trade show and came upon a couple of chairs that simply exceeded anything we have seen to date in terms of stylistic flourish. They were just over the top. I'd love to see the home in which these chairs end up. See below.
Enough griping. One positive note: at the same trade show, we found an Iranian rug merchant who had come to the show from Tehran, Iran, to ply his wares. We bought a lovely wool rug that’s about 8 feet by 5 feet. See next two pictures, one of which is a close up. Now we can stop coveting the rugs in the museum.
Please do not be concerned as you read our complaints. We really are just fine. There are lots of good things going on for us and our students, and that’s what matters. But know that we continue to be as human as ever and we appreciate your following our story.