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.

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