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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences in Kyrgyzstan, a country I knew existed but had no conception of at all.

FYI - I found you via LanguageHat.

Enjoy Germany, and travel safely.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog (and this post especially). You have a gift, JJ.
(I came via Patrick F, and very greatful)
What a difference between your account and one here:http://slate.msn.com/id/2107063/entry/0/

Really, it's all in attitude.
Hope you'll have a nice break in Germany.


Juke said...

Most interesting and well-written!
What is your work?
Where are you from?
It's like life on other planets, for me reading this, no? Yes? A little?
So far away from my place here at the edge of the US, in the middle of California.
Time well-spent reading of Kyrgyz fish-kebabs!
And odd Americans from Connecticut!
Watch out for those potholes!
Do you have a light on your bike?

jj said...

Thanks for reading and for the encouragement. I appreciate it. To answer your questions, I'm from the U.S.. I prefer not to write directly about my work because this blog is meant to be a purely personal endeavor. I don't yet have a light on my bike, but it's on my list!