Meetings and Bus Rides

Though it may seem strange to dedicate a whole post to meetings, I am fascinated by them to the extent that I believe they warrant their own post. We have two staff meetings a week. One is on Monday and it involves the "Management Team" made up of most staff members, but not administrative staff. On Friday, we have Staff Development Meetings, which involves all staff members and covers one topic per week. Generally the topics are just overviews of and updates on a certain staff member's work. It's a way for each part of the team to know what the other parts are doing. We also have ad hoc meetings made up of anywhere from two people to the whole staff, including the drivers. 

Meetings are often scheduled for 45-60 minutes, but I've yet to attend one that ended on time. Inevitably, they devolve into heated discussions and we end up covering only half the material in the allotted time. The meetings begin with the presenter introducing a topic with powerpoint slides. Usually we get through one or two slides before the questions start. Some of the meetings are held in Russian and some are held in English. If Mark, the Chief of Party, needs to know the information in real time, i.e. as it is presented, the meeting is in English. No matter how the meeting begins, within a few minutes we switch to Russian. Often the Russian is spoken too quickly for me to pick out even basic words. Though I don't understand what's happening, it's amusing to watch because the presenter will say something that is not even remotely inflammatory or debatable, (in my estimation) but it will spark heated debate. For example, an informational slide on a grading system for nonprofit organizations led to a 5-minute discussion on what information we should share with the leaders of these organizations. One woman's hands were shaking, she was so upset by the possibility of providing certain information. 

One reason these discussions are so amusing is that everyone talks at the same time, and yet they all seem to hear and respond to each other. It is not at all like a measured, polite, and restrained American meeting. There is a directness and a certain type of honesty exhibited that I rarely see in American conversation at all. 

After participating in the meetings for the last month and a half, I've grown more accustomed to the hectic nature of the conversations. Even so, I find I'm unlikely to contribute unless asked a direct question.

The differences in polite conduct arise in the way people form lines in shops and ride the bus. I started taking marshrutkas in my third week, which are minibuses that make up the majority of public transportation here. I was taking taxis, which cost about $2 a trip, or walking, but I started work at a new office that's too far to walk to. I don't mind the occasional taxi ride, but even such a low cost adds up after a short time. The marshrutkas cost twenty cents (10 som) and take me anywhere I want to go in the city. The only problem is the chaos involved in catching them, riding them, and asking them to stop. They run on predetermined routes, but without predetermined stops. To catch one, you simply spot the correct bus based on the number in the front window (on some streets, 3-4 might be passing by at a time) and wave it down, like a taxi. That's when the fun starts. Oftentimes, the buses are packed full of people. Many riders stand, pushed up against one another. It's a prime opportunity for pickpocketers, but I've been ok so far. Getting off is probably the most difficult part of the process because I have to 1) somehow recognize the streets without seeing them (imagine standing in a van and looking out the window); 2) get to the front of the marshrutka, apologizing all the way;  and 3) communicate to the driver that I'd like him to stop. Now I have very little trouble, but the first week was full of mishaps.

As I did while observing meetings, I've come to appreciate the rules of riding buses. Like many social interactions here, what I first see as chaos is actually just as guided by rules as anything in the U.S., and learning the rules is all part of the experience.

My apologies for the long gap between posts. I promise at least one more in the next few days. Here's a picture of Shamsi Gorge just for fun: