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.).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a native Russian speaker, living in NY, may I give you a language advice?
When reading in Russian, don't try to use books translated from English into Russian, especially relatively recent translations. It could be full of mistakes, bad style, wrong idiom translations, etc. (For example, I was reading a NY writer story translated into Russian, where the characters were eating chicken, "fried in Kentukky").
In other words, Chekhov is a right choice, HP - wrong.

If you need advice on Russian, or just have a question you don't want to ask people around for some reason, you can write to me, to tat _ epstein at hot mail dot com.

Thank you for your wonderful posts.