Tuesday, September 21, 2004

my first visitor

This weekend I had my first visitor. On Sunday, I invited my 32-year-old landlady, Zhenya, and her 8-year-old son Algubek over for a dinner of homemade pizza and fruit salad. Since Zhenya’s mother lives in America, I thought they might especially enjoy a typical American dish.

Zhenya arrived wearing a short white skirt and a lavender knit tank top. Her naturally curly hair, black with a reddish tint, frizzed out from her scalp toward her shoulders. She pulled out house slippers for herself and her son from a plastic bag, then brought out a bag of rolled waffles (kind of like cylindrical waffle cones) which she told me she’d made herself that afternoon with her waffle maker. Algubek paused to admire my bike, then headed straight for the TV, leaving Zhenya and I to talk.

Zhenya is an unusual person. She’s a follower of an Indian spiritual leader who lives in New York and who frequently organizes marathons for peace. She practices yoga, likes to run, and doesn’t drink or eat meat. She told me that her mother was a very active person, who’d come home from climbing mountains with a sunburned face. Her father didn’t enjoy much besides watching TV and her parents divorced before Zhenya was one. Her mother, who is an artist and also a follower of the Indian spiritual leader, had the chance to go to Italy while working on a film about Genghis Khan. After spending two years there, she moved to the U.S., where she has lived since.

Zhenya studied economics at the university and even did an internship where I am working. She is not working now though because she said her son is very “dynamic” and needs her attention to focus on his studies.

Zhenya married an attractive man, part Turk, part Uighur, when she was 22. They met while working as camp counselors and dated for a year before marrying. Utilizing her economics education, when her mother gave her a thousand dollars for the wedding and told her to do what she wanted, she put the money in the bank and bought a cheap dress, cheap Chinese shoes, and had a small dinner at home.

She spent eight years with her husband. For the first several years, he worked as a geologist, but then he became tired of living in a tent in the mountains from May until September each year.

“He wanted to find a job in the city,” she told me. “So he found a job as a driver in a firm run by a young local businessman. But he’s so friendly that he soon became more of a friend to the firm’s director than a driver. And when the director would go out to the casinos, he’d invite my husband. He began to play at the casinos with zeal and it changed him as a person. He’d come home nervous, started borrowing money from people, and made people get tired of him.”

Two years ago they separated and while she claims she’s divorced, it’s not official.

"In order to process the papers, both people have to show up at the government office and he never has any time,” she said. “He’s still playing in the casinos.”

I was surprised. Couldn’t one person divorce another?

“If you go and pay something like $15 or $20, you can get a divorce in ten minutes,” she said. “But I don’t want to pay. I want him to go down and fill out all the paperwork for 100 som ($2.50). And it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m divorced or not. I have a child and I have a lot of interests. I don’t have any interest in marrying again.”

Zhenya’s main source of income is renting out two extra apartments. She seems to quite well by that. I pay $330 a month. That’s a pretty good income for her, given that my local coworkers earn between $50 and $230 a month at their full time jobs. She provides great service in return, replacing light bulbs and clock batteries without being asked and once, while she was there waiting for the telephone repair person, washed all the floors.

She told me that earlier that day, she’d been at the other apartment she’s renting out, waiting for workers to come do some gas repair. They showed up drunk, which really made her worry, since they were working with gas.

“All the service employees, the electricians, telephone repairmen, plumbers, they all come to work drunk,” she said.

When I asked why she said that it was because they were all men and men drink a lot.

“When I was here last, I was reading your newspaper and I saw an ad looking for a sober electrician,” she said. She pulled my old newspaper off the top of the TV and showed it to me. “This really made me laugh!”

“Do they pay more for a sober worker?” I asked.

“No, they are all paid the same.”

I asked how poor people were able to find money for vodka.

“Don’t you know?” she asked, surprised. “There is always money for the bottle. For those who can’t afford to buy a whole bottle, they sell glasses of homemade vodka for five som (12 cents).”

Tomorrow I leave for Germany for a four-day seminar. I’m not so much looking forward to leaving Kyrgyzstan, as I still have so much to learn here. But I am looking forward to a few nights in what I hope will be a soft bed.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Lake Issyk-Kul

One evening I happened across Lost in Translation on TV. I didn’t like the movie much the first time I saw it, but watching it in Russian in Kyrygzstan gave it entirely new meaning. Suddenly, the portrayal of cultural isolation, of feeling oneself alone on an oasis among a sea of otherness, suddenly rang true. I could relate to the strangeness, both in being looked upon as odd and gazing around me at the strangeness, having to get used to everything from the dates being written backwards, to people buying goat heads off the street, to large ads promoting BARF laundry detergent and figuring out that hot water requires turning the handle to the left in the bathroom and to the right in the kitchen.

While I have lots of interaction with the locals, it’s been difficult so far to form relationships, especially since I live alone and spend most of my time at work. I’ve gotten to know several employees through the course of work, but haven’t spent any time with them outside of work. Unlike teaching, where everyone is pretty much on the same level, I’ll soon be managing the type of employees I currently work with daily and that adds a level of complication to social relationships. There are several shopkeepers I buy from frequently and we have friendly relations, but it doesn’t go beyond casual conversation. And except for the man who came here for internet love and my two German colleagues, I haven’t had any contact with Westerners.

I decided to get out of the city last weekend, to see Kyrgyzstan’s famous lake while the weather was still warm, and to get a glimpse of life outside the capital. Early Saturday morning, I took a minibus for the four hour trip to Lake Issyk-Kul. It seems Boris Yeltsin was traveling to the same place at about the same time, so the streets of Bishkek were lined with police. I’d seen Yeltsin on TV, handing out awards to students at the Kyrgyz-Russo-Slavic University in Bishkek. Someone later told me that they recently put up a silver statue of Yeltsin on the university grounds. “In Russia, no one will even name a primary school after me,” I was told he said, “but here they give me statues.”

The scenery along the road to Lake Issyk-Kul was much more rocky, scrubby and rough than I expected. We started out driving through golden fields leading to snow covered mountains, then entered a dry, dusty landscape that soon led to brown mountains folds on either side of us. A silver, rapidly flowing river cut rudely through the landscape. Cows grazed lazily alongside it. The land was empty – no billboards and no strip malls, just fields, clusters of homes, and occasional roadside stands, selling apples, pears and mountain honey. As we passed through the mountains and into the open valley, the river water stilled, the sparkling blue so pure in the dusty, rough landscape.

Issyk-Kul is Kyrgyzstan’s equivalent of Russia’s Lake Baikal, and is the prime local vacation spot. Issyk-Kul means ‘warm lake’ and the light salinity, depth and thermal activity prevent the lake from ever freezing. The tourist resorts are concentrated on the north shore, where the water is more shallow and the beaches sandy. I chose to go a village mentioned in my guidebooks that didn’t have major tourist infrastructure, but was supposed to have a good beach. It sounded like a nice place to enjoy the nature without the noise.

I hadn’t made any plans in advance and was a little nervous when I was dropped off alone in the village of Tamchy. The only sound on the main street, Manas, was that of cawing crows and barking dogs. Luckily, I found that lots of houses had “rooms for rent” signs posted to their fences. Since I arrived after the season had already ended, it was easy to find a place to stay. I walked down the lake and approached a house on the shore to see if they had rooms available. They did. For $2.50 I got a lakeside view. I also got some bedbugs, but it was worth it.

After having a simple lunch of fried lamb on the bone in a lakeside yurt, I changed into my swimsuit and relaxed on the poplar-lined beach. I marveled at the blue band crossing the horizon right in front of me, pushing back the mountains on the lake’s southern side. Across the water, the snowy mountains were distant, ephemeral, floating. The mountains were barely visible, just the snowy tops floated in the sky like low-lying clouds.

I ate my meals in the house owned by the Kyrgyz family, at the cholpon, a long table on a raise platform surrounded by dirty felt and wool blankets. A large, old poster of a waterfall covered the white wall and two abacuses lay against the walls. A small TV in the far corner played cartoons. The room was lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and smelled of livestock and butter.

For dinner I had manti, steamed dumplings filled with meat, potato, onion and fat. For lunch I had plov, fried rice with lamb, onion, carrot and fat, along with some fresh apricots from their trees, homemade butter, and a homemade tomato sauce. During both meals, I had long chats with the family. The husband, Barat, was a round, serious man with a large, protruding stomach. His wife Gulnya was also wide, with a friendly, round, wrinkled face and a worn, pale-blue skirt and shirt.

“Life was better during Communism,” Barat told me, as I chewed on my manti, continuing the chorus that I heard repeatedly, especially from middle-aged and older men. “We didn’t have to worry about tomorrow then, but now we do. People thought that if they got rid of socialism, there wouldn’t be war. But even without socialism, Chechens are fighting, there was war in Tajikistan, and fighting in Georgia.”

His wife entered and chuckled at hearing his socialism reminiscences. “He was a Communist party member,” she said.

“For how long?” I asked him.

“Twenty years.”

“Was it hard to become a member?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he replied proudly. “The problem was that the Communist at the top didn’t practice true Communism. They took everything for themselves. If our society was 60 percent rich and 40 percent poor it would be OK. But we have over 90 percent poor. It’s not good.”

He came to the village of Tamchy when the Communist party sent him there from his birthplace on the southern lakeshore, to work in the village kolkhoz. He met his wife there and they’ve lived on the lakeshore since 1973, where they raised five children. They start their day at 6:30 by milking the cows, then sending them up to the mountains that rise over the village to graze. When I visited, they were digging up potatoes from their garden, and packing apples and pears from their courtyard trees into a wholesale vendor’s car. They also run a pharmacy and have been renting rooms to tourists for the past four years.

I asked about wife-stealing and Barat said that he didn’t steal his wife. “She agreed, and even smiled,” he said. He told me that wife-stealing was forbidden during Soviet times, as was having multiple wives. “People would go to jail for that,” he said. “But now, the government has decided to not take a stand, to neither prohibit it or to encourage it. As a result, we have some top government leaders with multiple wives.”

He said that in his village, like among the Buryats in Siberia, couples usually mutually agree to marry, then act out a kidnapping for the sake of tradition. “The kidnapped woman still cries,” he said. He said that unexpected and unwanted wife-stealing does happen in his village, but rarely. He said it’s much more common in the south, where I’ll be living next. “There, an older man like me can see a woman on the street, talk to her father, and arrange to have her stolen. His son may never have even seen her before. But love will come later.”

Barat and Gulnya offered to serve as my adoptive parents if I end up working in a nearby city and invited me to come next time as a guest.

I had been developing what I thought was a cold over the weekend and by Monday I was definitely sick. I came home from work after lunch and was flat on my back with a bad case of traveler’s sickness for another day or so. I’m better now, thanks to the miraculous Cipro and just appreciate my health.

In the city, the leaves are not so much changing color as drying. The leaves, turning yellow after months of heats, twirl gracefully toward the ground, as smooth, barrel-shaped acorns fall from oak trees onto the heads of pedestrians. It’s still warm, especially in the afternoons, but the feeling of fall is in the air.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Independence Day


Thanks so much to all who have written. I’m still in the adaptation stage and letters from friends and family invariably cheer me up, regardless of the day’s experiences.

I’ve been working for almost two works and have started settling into a routine. I’ve taken advantage of the prolonged jetlag to try to make myself into a morning person, going to bed by 11 and getting up at six. Those who know me well can probably place bets on how long this will last, but for now there’s not a lot to do in the evenings and I like having some time to myself before the work day begins.

My missing bag and bike finally arrived and I’ve been biking to work every day. The 15-20 minute ride to work is probably my favorite part of the day. The air is fresh, crisp and cool, the city doesn’t quite yet seem to be in motion, and the exercise invigorates me. I knew that riding my shiny silver mountain bike would attract attention and my helmet makes me stand out even more, but I receive more curious stares than outright laughs (though there have been a few). I get the most attention from young boys, who seem to think the bike is pretty cool. As any person looks for others like them in a crowd, I’ve kept a close eye on bike riders. I see about five bikers in a typical day. Most are Kyrgyz men and most seem to be not very well off. I’ve seen one foreign man on a shiny silver bike like mine (sans helmet) and several foreign serious bikers, equipped with helmets, biker shorts and road bikes. But I have yet to see a female of any nationality on a bicycle. I offered to let my landlady take a ride, but she said she was afraid of bicycles.

Riding is not easy, with the combination of potholes, surprise obstacles, and both drivers and pedestrians that seem to pay no attention to dividing lines or other rules of traffic. I’m on the constant lookout for surprises and that prevents me from going very fast. But with time, I’m finding quieter roads to take and learning where the main obstacles are. The city is flat and during the day, it’s a lot of fun to ride. After dark, it’s treacherous, with virtually no lighting and a constant fear of an imminent hole in the road. I try to avoid it whenever possible.

This week I’ve been based at a local office, versus the headquarters office where I was last week. I’m the only foreigner there and it’s given me a much better look at how things work and also allowed me to get to know a lot of local staff. On the down side, about ten of us are packed into a small office with no ventilation, fan or air conditioning and the bathroom is a dirty porcelain squat toilet with no mirror or toilet paper.

I eat lunch at the office cafeteria. A typical meal might be a pepper stuffed with meat and rice with a side of oily cabbage or lagman (a stew made of homemade noodles topped with beef and chopped peppers) with a side of fried cottage cheese patties. Lunch rarely costs more than 75 cents and for the price, it’s quite good.

Frequently, the employees will bring in a bag of apples or plums that they’ve plucked from their gardens to share with the staff. This country is rich in fruits and vegetables. Watermelon costs about two cents a pound and grapes are 30 cents a pound. Many families have grapes naturally growing in their home gardens. I visited one home with grapes hanging down from a latticed walkway. When I expressed surprise at the small green bulbs hanging above my head, the first time I’d seen grapes growing at someone’s home, they told me that almost every family has grapes.

The work days are long and I’m usually pretty tired in the evenings. I watch the news in Russian, continuing a full day of language immersion and end the day in English with a little reading or writing. Since I live alone and don’t have much time, I haven’t had a lot of motivation to cook and either go out or just put something together from groceries for dinner.

There is a nice health club near my home, apparently a joint American-Kyrgyz venture and I’ve been able to attend aerobics and aqua aerobics there a few times. Last weekend I paid a visit to the Fine Arts Museum. The concrete hulk of a building, surrounded with stale water from non-functioning fountains, contained an array of work featuring mountains and valleys, yurts, livestock, old men and falcons, and vast skies. The enormity of nature in comparison with the size of humanity seemed to be a common theme.

Perhaps the most interesting event I’ve attended so far was Independence Day, on August 31st. I was curious to see how it would be celebrated, given that 90 percent of Kyrgyz residents voted against the breakup of the Soviet Union. On the day before, I asked Sergei, a silver-haired driver, whether he felt independence day was a holiday or just a day to rest. “For me, it’s just a day to rest,” he said. “The decision for independence wasn’t made by the people. It was made by those in power. They wanted to retain what they had and weren’t thinking about the people. It was the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that decided this. We still live pretty much like we did during Communism. People are still poor.”

I thought it would be most interesting to attend with a local, so I called up a young woman I’d met the previous day who said she wanted English practice. “Americans are like Gods,” she’d said upon meeting me, giving me the impression that she got very little practice. I asked if she’d like to attend the ceremony on the central square. She paused, speaking to someone in the room, “This is J. calling. I told you about her,” then agreed. I figured it must be her husband and thought it pretentious that she spoke to him in English. I soon found out why.

While walking to the central square to meet Svetlana late Tuesday morning, I soon found myself in a mass of cheerful, excited people, all heading in the same direction. The sheer number of people made crossing the streets much easier, as cars were forced to yield to pedestrians. As we nearer the center, the roads were blocked off to traffic. I got there just as a parade was going by, with floats for human rights, company floats, like the champagne factory, and people dressed up in costumes. Yells, whistles and cheers accompanied each float and it was amazing to see such a celebration for an independence that only 10 percent of the population wanted. Smoke rose from shashlik stands on practically every corner and small vendors were busy selling drinks, ice cream, popcorn and cotton candy to the crowds.

I didn’t find Svetlana until after the parade went by. When the crowds dispersed, I saw her tall, slender figure, dressed in loose white New Age clothing with embroidered edges. She was accompanied by an overweight man in his 50s or 60s who she introduced as Robert. She said that he was a retired military officer. He started out speaking Spanish, but then said he was from Connecticut. I wondered where she picked him up. Was she interpreting for him, did she just happen to run into him? I soon found out that he’d come here to Bishkek in February and plans to stay here for the rest of his life. He was planning to retire to Guadalajara, but after meeting Svetlana on the internet, he found their connection “so strong” that he agreed to come visit and now doesn’t want to leave. He seemed proud that he’d lost 30 pounds since his arrival. “He might look OK to you,” Svetlana said, “but here, people aren’t that fat.” He swore that the lack of chemicals, the natural foods, the mild climate and the nature were doing him good.

We walked to an outdoor café and sat down on red plastic chairs. They had plov (rice with meat, fat and carrots) and I had lamb shashlik, grilled chunks of meat and fat that were tender and juicy, almost velvety. We stayed there for quite a while, then walked around the packed central park areas, where photographers offered people instant photos of themselves and their children with people dressed in Teletubby outfits, or in front of fountains. We visited a row of statues, watched two girls play with a balloon in front of a statue of Marx and Engels conversing, and walked through an outdoor gallery, where artists sold their work. Cooks stirred giant iron vats of plov while vendors sold such delicacies as intestines and goat’s heads, placed on tables for easy viewing. After taking a picture, I asked someone standing in line if people actually ate the heads. He said yes.

“Where is the meat?” I asked.

“You’ll have to ask the vendor.”

I’ve since read more about the ritual of goat head eating and think I’ll have quite a story to tell you if you I’m ever offered one.

Besides the fact that the Kyrgyz enjoy a holiday, even if it was one they didn’t want to establish, I’ve also been noticing a very strong nostalgia for the Soviet days. In Russia I’d hear fond reminiscences from some elderly people, but it was not uniform. Other elderly people were just as happy to see it go away. Here I’m hearing it from middle-aged people as well and I’m generally not even asking. The topic just comes up.

One afternoon I was riding in a taxi with Koibagar, a middle-aged man who several years ago moved from a village, where he worked as a teacher, to Bishkek. Now he runs two small Sony Playstation centers, where children spend their afternoons playing video games for 25-35 cents an hour.

When we passed the Krygyz National University, he recalled his student days in the 1970s.

“The way we lived! Back then a pair of shoes cost 12 som (25 cents). I had a stipend of 50 rubles per month.”

The driver, a spunky, elderly Russian, acknowledged that it was hard even in Soviet times for those who didn’t work, but shared Koibalgar’s nostalgia. “Yesterday Putin said that it was good during the Soviet times,” he said. “He’s not like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who wanted to tear everything apart.”

“Oh yes, it was good then,” Koibagar recalled.

“The whole world was afraid of us then,” the driver remembered. “But look at us now.”

Koibagar turned to me in the back seat. “America needs to help us so that me and especially my children can work freely, like you do.”

“What about your government?” I asked.

“Our government is made up of us and it doesn’t work. We went right form feudalism to socialism and don’t have any experience with capitalism.”

After visiting his home, where he grew large cabbages, roses, tomatoes, marigolds and potatoes in his garden, we continued on to our next destination.

“Look at our life now,” Koibagar said to the driver. “We have to run everywhere.”

“You can thank Gorbachev for that.”

“Gorbachev? No, Yeltsin.”

“But Gorbachev began it all,” the driver insisted. “At that time, no one thought about where everyone would work. They said, oh yes, they’ll be work, but look at it now. Students finish the institute and where do they go? To the bazaar?”

During this fond reminiscing about the past, a young man in his 20s, in the back with me, remained silent. When he countered their arguments that there were no jobs, they attacked him virulently. He didn’t say another word, letting the generational division remain.

PS - In order to protect the privacy of anyone I write about, I'm changing the names and some indentifying information.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

going further afield

September 4, 2004

This week I had the opportunity to get out of the city center see better how people lived. I visited a woman who lived in a two-room dormitory. She and her children slept on the floor in one room while she used the second room as a bakery, producing and selling cookies, rolls and buns. There were almost no possessions in the room they lived in – just a TV, a cabinet and some rugs to sleep on. I visited a better-off woman who converted a room of her home into a sewing factory. When I visited, a woman was sewing clothing out of a cheap black fabric with gold embroidery while a man ironed the products, the steam rising from the table each time he pressed down. She sells the clothing at a local market, where they are frequently bought by Russians and Chinese for resale in their countries.

I visited a café at a local market where the owner spent all her profits helping others, sending money to various relatives who needed it, selling food at a discount to poor market workers, and allowing a long list of people to eat in her café on credit.

Yesterday I had a long talk with an auto mechanic, who told me about his dissatisfaction with the government, its leaders and the Kyrgyz people themselves. He told me that he watches BBC in order to get the truth. “Our local channels tell us that everything is good, but I see with my own eyes that it’s not. If anything, we’re regressing,” he said.

He told me an anecdote:

One day a man who had lived very well and did everything right died. He went to heaven, but on the way he passed by hell and saw everyone dancing and drinking. Great, he thought, heaven should be even better than this. But when he got to heaven, he saw that everyone was quiet, polite and reserved. Why did I come to heaven for this, he wondered. I’ve already lived in this atmosphere. I’d rather be in hell. So he asked to go to hell and was told he’d have to get permission from God. He made his case to God and got the document, then went to hell. When he arrived, he found a terrible place, where people were beating and killing each other. I don’t want to be here, he said. I belong in heaven and want to go back there. No, the devil said, your papers say you should be here. He wouldn’t let him go. So the man asked another man nearby: What happened? When I came by here last I saw people drinking and dancing. What has happened since then? Oh, the other man replied, that was just an advertisement.

“And that’s what our government does,” the auto mechanic said, laughing, “they made an advertisement. They say all the right things, but then they don’t do anything.”

From these initial glimpses I’m seeing that the quality of life is quite low, with many earning between one and two dollars a day for a full day’s work, sleeping on the floor, and struggling to make ends meet. I’m also seeing that the phenomenon so common in developing countries, that of close family networks, seems to be very important here as well. On the positive side, it functions as a social security system. If you need help, you can count on your relatives to provide it. On the down side, it is a real barrier to the formation of a middle class. If someone happens to be entrepreneurial, smart or just lucky and they come into money, it’s difficult for them to invest the money and make it grow. Near and distant relatives in need, some truly in dire straits, others just lazy, will ask for assistance and a good family member is obligated to assist.

The auto mechanic, who now lives in a small home with an attached garage made of mud and straw, told me that he used to have a large house. “When I sold it, everyone needed money and I ended up giving almost all of it away,” he said.

As a result, I began to feel conspicuously wealthy and privileged in comparison and of course, that made me uncomfortable. The evening after I met the baker, both saddened and inspired by her struggle to adjust to a new economy, I tried to turn on my own oven for the first time. I repeated what I thought I remembered my landlady showing me. But as I held the match to the gas, I heard a small explosion and jumped back in shock, grateful that I hadn’t been burned. Only a bit later, when I ran my fingers through my bangs and felt a texture like straw did I look in the mirror and see that I’d singed my eyelashes, eyebrows and hair, just like in the cartoons. Even in a higher-end apartment, simple tasks can be a struggle.