Friday, November 05, 2004

A surprise protest

Yesterday, while walking to work, I noticed a rusted, old trolleybus sputter by, packed so tightly that the bus tilted to the left and the wheels were barely visible. I marveled that such an ancient contraption could still run and could attract so many passengers. I wondered why I didn’t notice before how full they were.

A few hours later, I sat in the car with Malan, the Uzbek office driver. He poined out the large crowds of people standing on the sides of the street.

“There are no marshrutkas today,” he said. “They are on strike.”

Marshrutkas are minivans that seat about 14 people and serve as the main source of public transportation throughout Kyrgyzstan, both within urban areas and between cities. Drivers register for a numbered route and post the number in the front window. People can stand along the street anywhere on the route and wait for their number to come along in the endless flow, like waiting for a lottery number to be drawn, or the final number to be called on a winning bingo card. When they see it, they wave the marshrutka down and the drivers swerve over to pick up as many passengers as they can.
“Why are they are on strike?” I asked.

“I think they want to pay less taxes.”

“I watched the local news last night. Why didn’t I hear anything about this?” I’d seen all kinds of footage of Kyrgyz President Askar Akeav shaking hands and smiling, and similar footage of the President of Kazakhstan. Why wouldn’t they mention that the city would be without public transportation?

“Because this isn’t America,” Malan answered. “If you talk too much, people come for you in the middle of the night.”

Back at the office I asked Anton, a Ukrainian coworker if he knew more about the situation.

“Due to the high price of gasoline, the drivers want to raise the marshrutka fare from four som (10 cents) to five som (12.5 cents). But the government doesn’t agree.”

His answer to why it wasn’t announced in advance was that maybe the drivers decided to strike just this morning.

I asked a few people whether they thought the drivers demand for a five-som fare was just. In Bishkek the fare is five som.
One student in my aerobics class said, “Given the high price of gas now, five som is fair. But during normal times, it should go back down to four.”

Gulnara, our 24-year-old office manager, thought that five som was too much to ask. “Salaries in Osh are low,” she said, citing the example of her friend who got a job teaching English after graduating from the university and was paid $20 a month. When she moved to Bishkek, she was paid $50 for the same work.

It wasn’t until I asked a third person, a taxi driver, about the strike that I got a complete picture. “Four som isn’t enough for the drivers because they are being asked to pay very high taxes. So they need five som to compensate for the taxes.”

Most people reacted to the strike by either walking or taking the stuffed, slow trolleybuses. Since the trolleybuses get their power from electric wires, they aren’t dependent on gas prices.

Vika, the same student who bathes after aerobics in order to access hot water, told me, “I live near the Kyrgyz National University, where I study, so I didn’t hear about the strike until I was already at my classes. My classes end at 3:30 and then I have English at a different institute at 4. I had to walk 45 minutes there and was late for my lessons.” She told me that she planned to walk the hour and a half home after aerobics.

“Isn’t it dangerous at night?” I asked.

“No, because my friend is waiting for me. His lessons end at eight and we’ll walk home together.”

I had planned to take a taxi home, but when she exclaimed how close my neighborhood was, I felt bad about my easy ability to afford a dollar for a taxi and decided to walk and feel what it’s like to not have transportation available. Other than the close glimpse I got of a rat running alongside a building and under a door, it was actually a nice walk, especially since there were more people than usual on the roads.

The strike continued into the next day. In the morning, it was clear from the large number of pedestrians on the street and the occasional trolleybus passing by, stuffed to the edges, that the marshrutkas still weren’t running. By afternoon, the first drivers returned to the road and quickly filled their vehicles. As I watched people piling in, well beyond where one might think the minivan was full, I was glad to know that people would have a safe means of returning home in the evening. Whether or not the drivers achieved their demands, I still don’t know. There was no mention of it on the evening news.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The value of hot water, transport and communications

Sometimes I forget about the everyday realities of poverty here. It can be hard to remember that people who appear to be educated and urban are surviving on pennies.

I met a student named Vika during aerobics who told me that she lives in a dormitory and doesn’t have a phone. After class, she undressed and prepared to take a shower. Someone asked why she was showering in the evening.

“They have hot water here and I don’t have that at home,” she said. “We just have a teapot and gas.” I thought back to the year I spent washing with a teapot and understood what a treat a hot shower could be.

I left the health club and tried to take a marshrutka home. At the bus stop, people waiting there told me that buses to my neighborhood weren’t running at that time of night and I’d have to walk to a different stop. That stop wasn’t far away and I was going to walk there. But I met a couple of girls who said they were also going to my neighborhood.

“We’re moving and have heavy bags, so it would be hard to walk to the other stop. But we don’t have money for a taxi, so we’re trying to figure out what to do.”

One of them suggested to me, “Maybe if you could chip in some money we could get a taxi together.”

I agreed, they negotiated a price with the driver and I got in together with the three girls and their belongings, wrapped in blankets. One was a computer science student, another had a degree in English and was working as an English teacher. I figured they’d expect me to pay more and I was prepared to pay more than half. But they all got out before my stop and didn’t seem to have contributed anything.

“Did you give anything to the driver?” I asked.

“You’re paying,” the driver said, looking at me.

“No, not yet,” the English teacher told me. “We don’t have any money.”

“Can you give him 15?” I asked, asking them to contribute less than half. The money wasn’t really an issue, I just couldn’t tell if they were trying to take advantage of me or not.

“We only have small money,” she said. “We were preparing to just seat one girl in the marshrutka.”

I really didn’t know what to think. I resented being used to rent a taxi for all of them, when I myself was planning on taking a marshrutka. But if they were so poor that this girl only owned two blankets full of belongings and couldn’t afford a 30 cent contribution to a taxi, I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it.

“I’ll be your free translator for a week,” she told me.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll send someone to bring you the money.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Both the girl taking the shower and the girls who couldn’t afford a taxi reminded me of the real poverty here, so often disguised by educated speech and a middle-class appearance.

On another topic, someone asked about language here. I use Russian as my means of communication. Those who have studied English are eager to practice with me, but given that I need a really high level of Russian for my work, I try to avoid speaking English when possible.

In Bishkek, a much more Russified city, Russian was undoubtedly an acceptable means of communication. Sometimes local staff would communicate with clients in Kyrgyz. Usually those people understood Russian, but were more comfortable in Kyrgyz. But that was more the exception than the norm. I sometimes heard Kyrgyz on the street, but heard at least as much Russian, if not more. In our headquarters office, no one, including the ethnic Kyrgyz, are fluent enough in Kyrgyz to be able to speak and write.

In Osh it’s different. Not only are there very few Russians, Ukrainians, ethnic Germans and others who would primarily use Russian, but there is a sizeable Uzbek population. Most within Osh speak and understand Russian, but I hear Kyrgyz and Uzbek much more frequently. In fact, one afternoon I was standing in the market area, waiting for a ride, and I realized that not only was I the only Caucasian within sight, but that I wasn’t hearing any Russian spoken in the commotion around me.

The program I work for uses Russian as the language of operation, so all local staff are required to speak Russian. Therefore, I have no problem communicating with people at work. But the local staff here frequently speak with clients in Kyrgyz or Uzbek.

I haven’t had a chance to travel much, but my guess would be that I could have problems communicating in the rural areas around here. While in the small town of Uzgen, the site of fierce ethnic conflict between Kygyz and Uzbeks in 1990, killing 300, I stopped in the market to buy Uzgen red rice, which I’d heard was supposed to be really special. I bought half a kilo and asked the vendor how to prepare it, but she didn’t understand me. I asked those nearby if anyone spoke Russian and no one spoke it well enough to be able to tell me what ratio of water I should add to the rice.

So the obvious question is why don’t I learn Kyrgyz? I asked my boss about learning Kyrgyz and she said to not waste my time. I’m not sure I agree it would be a waste of time, but it depends on where I end up living. Certainly, anywhere in the south or in more remote areas, it would come in handy. And since it seems likely that I’ll end up in the south or in a remote area, I would like to learn something.

The second problem was finding a Kyrgyz language book. I’d looked overseas without luck and I looked in Bishkek without luck. I had easily found good books for English speakers to learn Latvian, Swahili, Bengali and Vietnamese. But there is nothing I know of for Kyrgyz. The only thing I could find was a thin book for Russian speakers that used the formal, grammatical method popular among the Soviets. I didn’t think I could get anything out of that. I needed big, round type and pictures to go along with basic vocabulary, not grammatical theories.

When I met some Peace Corps trainees, they told me that they had a great Kyrgyz language book that was written by Peace Corps employees. I called up the Peace Corps and they kindly agreed to sell me a copy. It is a beautiful book, with the nice, simple style I was looking for. Once I get settled somewhere, I’d like to find a teacher and start studying. Until then, I still have some progress to make in Russian. I’m not doing any formal study, but I carry around Russian-English vocabulary cards, try to speak Russian whenever possible, only watch TV in Russian, and read every third book in Russian (I’ve only read one book in Russian so far, the first volume of Harry Potter. It took me ages and I was really frustrated by the slow pace, but it felt like quite an accomplishment to finish. Now, after enjoying two books in English, I’m starting Chekhov’s Ward Number 6.).

Monday, November 01, 2004

7:45 a.m. in Osh

This morning I left my apartment for work. As I began to walk down the five flights of stairs, I saw a creature race down one flight in front of me. Initially thinking it was a rat, I froze in fear, then realized that it was a bird, the source of the loud twitterings I often hear in the morning.

I emerged onto the street in the cool, sunny air. The empty, faded playground stood still. I walked along the Soviet style apartment building, reading the graffiti and marveling that this is one of the most exclusive areas in Osh. I was looking for a garbage can, since I still didn’t know where to throw my garbage away. I saw a pile of plastic bags in the grass near my building and another pile of leaves and garbage on the street, near a bus stop, but no actual bins.

I passed the taxis, lined up in their usual spot, and crossed the street. The vendor who usually sets up a table within the fenced in Foreign Languages faculty hadn’t arrived yet and the street was strangely silent. The swishing sound of the street sweepers followed me as I walked to work. At least four people were sweeping per block, using clumps of branches tied together as brooms. They worked intently, sweeping the dried leaves into gutters, then setting the piles on fire.

No one seemed to be out but me and the street sweepers. The old woman who usually sells sunflower seeds and cigarettes on a corner was just putting out her wares. Usually she sits ready when I walk by, watching the passerbys from her small chair, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf. On this morning, there were no other pedestrians and very few cars. I felt unusually tuned into my surroundings.

Dirty water ran under the sidewalk, appearing in pools and canals tinkling, somehow retaining a blue color. Pigeons cooed and fluttered amidst branches, dropping some of the last dried leaves to the ground. Smoke rose from burning leaves and garbage. With the golden carpet dried up and swept away, my feet tapped against the uneven sidewalk.

I arrived at work and found it dark and empty. The suspicion had been growing and I finally had to accept it - daylight savings time had occurred without anyone telling me. It was actually 6:45 in Osh.