Friday, December 23, 2005

A city preparing for the New Year & A Good Charity

I left Bishkek today to head home for the holidays. I left a city in eager preparation for their biggest holiday of the year, New Years. Rows of stands appeared outside markets, filled with lit trees, holiday ornaments, tinsel and decorations. All kinds of businesses – from pharmacies to soap stands were adding holiday goods to their stocks.

Nigora and Shavkat invited me to come to Osh to spend the holidays with them. I would have liked to, had I been in Kyrgyzstan. Sven moved out of their home and into an apartment once his wife and child arrived. They didn’t like the idea of having to carry their small daughter outside every time she wanted to use the bathroom or wash. Nigora’s business is continuing, though her profit remains only about five dollars a day. She’s hoping it will improve in two to three months, when people get used to this new marketplace.

One day this week, I approached a run down taxi with cracked windows. It was obvious that the driver was an immigrant from a rural area – in this case, Naryn. When I came up to the door, two men jumped out to make room for me. It’s pretty common for one taxi driver to visit another while waiting for a customer, but I’d never seen such a group before. Then, when the driver turned off the small black and white TV he’d installed under the radio, I understood what attracted the crowd.

We clunked along down the Bishkek streets and stopped at a stoplight with a Mercedes kiddy-korner to us. The Mercedes driver washed his windows and the water spouted up so high that it rained on our car, several feet behind him. Such little unusual moments, which happen fairly often in Kyrgyzstan, are what I love about the country.

I recently found out about a charity in Bishkek that finds sponsors for elderly people, mostly without children, living on pensions of under $20 a month. Sponsors agree to donate $10 a month, which goes directly to the elderly recipient.

I thought this was a great idea and I adopted a babushka this week. Her name is Natalya Ivanova and she was born in 1927. She worked on a collective farm, then worked as a cleaner. After 35 years of work, she receives a pension of 563 som (less than $15). She is divorced and has no children and the description said she doesn’t have enough money for food or needed medicines.

The elderly were undoubtedly hit hardest by the social changes following Communism. Having contributed their entire working lives to the Communist future, they expected a socialist retirement, in which they’d be well taken care of. The reality is that they were left with nothing. Most of the beggars on the street are either elderly or Gypies. I give the elderly small change, but I liked the idea of a system in which the sponsors could keep the people from having to beg, to retain their dignity in their final years.

This week I visited their Spartan office to sign up for a year’s sponsorship. It’s a well-organized group. They gave me a contract, promising to give her $10 a month, gave me a short history of Natalya’s life, translated by their staff into English, and a photo of her.

I brought her some gifts for New Year’s and asked if they’d be sure to give them to her.

“Yes,” one of the staff members said. “And when we do, we’ll take a picture of her with the bags and email it to you.”

Since I’m hoping to be able to visit her beginning in January, I’ll be able to check that she receives everything that was promised. But it did seem like a committed, well-organized group, sponsored by the Swiss.

My babushka has been on the waiting list for over a year. They told me they’d contact her and tell her they’d found her a sponsor. She will receive her first $10 payment this month.

“She’ll probably have forgotten about this by now,” I said, thinking how sad it was to have to wait a year for $10 a month in assistance.

“No, she definitely won’t have forgotten,” two staff members said in unison. “They call us all the time,” one of them said, “asking when we’ll be able to help them.”

There are currently over 200 babushkas, in Bishkek and Batken, on the waiting list and 99% of sponsors are from overseas (mostly from Switzerland). If you’d like information on how to adopt a babushka, see

Crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan this evening, the transition was stark as usual. I crossed the border with a group of people that looked very unusual, as though they’d just descended from a remote mountain area. The women were all short, squat, and wore solid colored scarfs around their heads. The men wore embroidered caps, were dark-skinned, and many had beards. They spoke a different language and seemed to speak Russian poorly. They definitely didn’t look Kyrgyz, but when I asked one man where he was from he showed me a Kyrgyz passport and said Bishkek.

I didn’t believe it. I asked my driver if he knew where they were from. At first he guessed they were Tadjiks, then after waiting in line with them, he found out they were Dunguns, from a place outside Bishkek. They work in the fields in the summer and were going to Almaty to buy goods a market there that they could resell, possibly in China.

I’d seen Dungan architecture, especially in one area outside Bishkek, and I’d seen plenty of Dungan cafes. But I’d never seen so many Dungans in one place. They are one of the small ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan and I believe they originate from China. It looked like an interesting culture and I regretted that I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to them.

The road to Almaty is finished and the entire trip takes about 3.5 hours. Once the border is crossed, the roads are lighter, the buildings better lit, and holiday lights were strung above the road. I fell asleep and woke up at the airport, under the lights of a glittering giant New Year’s tree, and a glittering, modern airport. I felt like I was already in Europe, just a few hours from my Central Asian home.

In the lounge where I waited for my plane were quite a few Americans with small children. One of them, a man who weighed well over 300 pounds and was dressed in a black heavy metal t-shirt and baseball hat, caught my attention immediately. He didn’t look like the type of American who comes to Central Asia and I wondered what he was doing there. He held a tiny blond boy in his expansive arms.

Then I realized that most of the people around him also held small children. One woman with mousy brown hair, pale skin, and thick, dark glasses held a little Kazakh girl. A woman with loose baggy jeans and a red shirt, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, patiently pulled a darker skinned little boy up off the ground. An already aging, intellectual-looking couple, held a little blond boy with spots on his face.

It seemed like they were all taking babies home from Kazakhstan. Looking at the variety of parents there, I wondered about the children’s luck. Of course, having a family is usually much better than being raised in an orphanage. Would they be grateful for this plane ride to another country, that would determine the rest of their life, or would they regret that no one had stopped it? Did the women who had given birth to them, not so long ago, have any idea that their offspring were headed across the ocean? But would all of them really be better off? I hoped so.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Desensitation to death

One morning this week, as I exited my apartment on my way to work, I saw a man lying motionless next to the garbage bins. He was on the frozen ground, covering with a blanket of livid sky. He had the appearance of a drunk – the dark, worn clothing, the unkempt appearance, the loneliness of an aging man alone. But in my passing glance, his open mouth seemed exceptionally still, his outreached hand frozen in place.

I have to admit that I did nothing. I felt the requisite guilt as I continued walking and knew it was a terrible state when nobody helped someone in that condition. A lame excuse it may have been, but there was a local woman sweeping around the garbage bins, just a foot or two from his body, and she didn’t seem to pay any attention. Nor did any of the passerbys. So what should I, a foreigner do – without any medical skills, without knowing any emergency numbers.

I wondered how much of the lack of reaction had to do with his appearance. A lot, I supposed. I hoped that if I were lying next to a garbage bin, someone would stop. And I felt I’d do the same for someone who looked as though they’d found themselves there against their will. But who can really tell in the case of a low-income aging man? Most assume it’s a drunk and walk on.

Yesterday I held a holiday dinner for my local friends. Not wanting people to separate into groups due to language, I decided to invite almost only locals (plus one foreign colleague fluent in Russian), planning a separate event for foreigners in the future. I ended up with a group of almost fifteen people – Kyrgyz, Russian and Kazakh, including four children, from four months to nine years old.

I made a dish I’d learned from my roommate in Siberia – French meat (beef covered with potatoes, onions, carrots, sweet corn, mushrooms, mayonnaise and cheese), homemade peanut butter cookies, and fruit salad. I bought roasted chickens and premade vegetable salads and set out dried fruit, nuts and lepushka. For dessert, I made an apple cobbler.

We gathered around a table in the living room, listening to Christmas music CDs on my laptop computer and a little two dollar Christmas tree serving as the holiday decorations.

Though I was short on space and supplies (I asked most if they could bring their own plate and cup), it was a pleasant evening. Most seemed to enjoy the chance to meet each other and they stayed for several hours. Both the toddler and the nine-year-old told their parents they wanted to stay the night at my place, despite my complete lack of any toys.

They also seemed to like the food and praised the effort I put into it.

“You are not American,” said Svetlana, who has a baby with an American man. “Americans can’t cook. They don’t have any time for such things.”

I did spend the entire day on Saturday preparing. But I didn’t mind. Having sat down at so many plentiful tables as a guest, it was nice to finally be the host. And it was good to be reminded that despite the loneliness of living alone in Bishkek, I do have the gift of several wonderful friends and acquaintances.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The flu is making its way through Bishkek with great power. So many people at work are sick that my boss is bringing in a nurse to offer flu shots tomorrow.

The weather is cold and dreary, though the lack of new snow means there are some clear places on the sidewalk where the ice has melted. Nevertheless, after seeing how difficult it is to walk on a nonstop ice sheet, when a friend from Alaska offered to pick me up some attachable soles with metal spikes on her next trip home, I accepted with gratitude.

Yesterday evening, Zhenya invited me over to meet her mother. She had left Kyrgyzstan seven years ago for America and hadn’t been back since. Other than seeing great changes in her only daughter and nine-year-old grandson, I figured her city must have changed greatly since she left. I asked her what surprised her most.

“When I left, the area was in the middle of a great depression,” she said. “It was so grey and sad. People didn’t know how to live or what to do. People have gotten through it and found things to do. And what really surprises me is all the little businesses. It used to just be huge enterprises, and of course, they had mostly died by the time I left. But now so many small businesses have popped up and they really seem to have changed the atmosphere.”

Zhenya filled me in on our friends Marina and Elena. Marina’s fiancé, the retired American, whose baby she gave birth to four months ago, seems not to be coming back. Marina would never admit that outright. But she asked Zhenya for recommendations of dating services that would introduce her to foreign men.

And Elena, an intelligent and kind 34-year-old, who is virtually engaged to a Spainard, is starting to see his troubling side. He has already taken her to Spain once and has now filed the paperwork for a fiancée visa, so that she can go to live there for a while. She has quit her job and is focused on studying Spanish. It’s an amazing opportunity for her to get out of a place where her opportunities are limited, to build a life for herself, and to have the family she craves. However, Jose has begun showing a jealous and controlling temperament, not believing her when she says where she has been, calling frequently, and expressing fears that she’ll get to Spain and then leave him.

“Elena thinks it’s because of the communication problem,” Zhenya said. She’d scrunched her naturally curly hair with mousse, defining her dark curls in a voluminous mass. “She thinks that maybe he just doesn’t understand her when she explains where she’s been and if only she spoke Spanish well, they wouldn’t have this problem.”

I told her that I doubted it was a cultural communication problem, it was probably a personality issue. I had already told her that men who sought foreign wives on the internet often had a reason why they couldn’t find a wife in their own country. And for a 48-year-old Spainard to never have been married, there was probably a reason why he hadn’t been able to find a woman willing to commit to him.

“I am listed on that same internet site,” Zhenya said, “and the owner of the agency knows my mother. She called yesterday, saying there was an American in town who wanted to be introduced to me. I wasn’t home so she told my mother. When I came back, my mother threw a scandal. She told me that such men weren’t normal, that so many girls who used that agency were now missing – they’d been sold, disappeared, or who knows what else. And she forbid me from going to meet him. I told her I just thought it would be interesting, but I can’t go while she’s here.”

I urged her to be safe, to not give him her address or phone number, to meet him in a public place, to not get in a car alone with him.

It makes me really sad to see hard-working, well-meaning, good people struggling so hard to find the most basic things, love, opportunity, respect and security.

The biggest holiday of the year, New Year’s, is coming up in a few weeks and the stores are already starting to stock up with extra alcohol, fancy candy, pre-made salads, gifts wrapped in cellophane, and cakes. And the weeks of gathering and parties are already slowly starting, bringing people out to the shops and markets in greater numbers than usual. I love watching the bustling shopkeepers bringing in the best income of the year, which will make their holiday all the much more enjoyable for them.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Swimming Below Freezing

I was not thinking clearly enough about the circumstances when I decided to go to aqua aerobics this morning. Held at a nearby health club with an outdoor pool, it’s a wonderful creation that allows one to enter the pool directly from a heated area. I’d gone before on chilly days and marveled at the ability to swim outside in the cool air. But those days were nothing like today – a freezing winter day, in which snow remained on the ground, the sidewalks were sheets of ice and the snow-tipped brown tree branches rose into a grey-white sky.

Management was clearing doing what it could to keep the pool swimmable. The water coming in through the vent was so hot it burned if I got too close. And steam rose from the pool in heavy clouds.

Nevertheless, my wet shoulders and neck frequently emerged from the water during the exercises, allowing the wet hair ends to gel into frozen particles, allowing my skin to feel the frigidity of the air. I looked at the teacher, a young woman dressed in a down coat, wool hat and gloves. She was blurry through the steamy mist, but I could see her sitting on her hands as she demonstrated what to do with our legs, trying to keep them warm. Behind her rose a tall, old white Soviet apartment block.

A man giving swimming lessons to children stood at another end of the pool, also dressed in a puffy down jacket. I lasted until the end of class, but determined to not do any more swimming in below zero weather. When I swam my laps at the end of class, I wasn’t trying for speed or varying technique. I moved slowly, focusing on keeping as much of my body as possible below water.

This evening I gathered with some people at a delicious Lebanese restaurant. Three of the couples were Western men, together with local women. There were no Western women with local men.

I’m starting to get to know some of the expatriate community in Bishkek and that’s nice. There seem to be quite a few interesting and fun people and they tend to be good sources of knowledge about fun things to do.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The family in Osh

I became worried about the money problems my Osh family seemed to be suffering during my last visit. So when Sven, the person being sent to replace me in Osh, expressed interest in living with a family, I hooked him up with Nigora and Shavkat. He moved in a few days after I left and loves them as I did. He will live there a month. Then, if his wife and young daughter agree to those living conditions, they will all live there together. I was glad that he has the opportunity, as I did, to integrate with a local family. And I know that the income from a renter will be a big help to the family’s financial stability.

I call them about a once a week. Nigora did start her business, buying one of the cheaper stalls. She sells dishes on the table and men’s shirts hang from the rafters surrounding her stall. I asked her why she decided to sell men’s shirts.

“Because the people who come by my stall tend to be pretty poor, so I had to think of something that they could afford to buy.” Her income is small, something like $5 a day, and her profit even less, but Nigora is hopeful that business will improve as she gains experience and regular customers. She says that she usually works until lunchtime and the older boys come to replace her after their lessons, so she can return home and prepare dinner.

I can’t wait until I can go visit myself.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Fire in the Snow

This evening I briefly went out to an internet café near my apartment. When I returned, less than an hour later, a man in thick clothing and a hard hat ran by me. When I turned the corner, towards my apartment entrance, I saw two fire trucks and a crowd of people gathered outside the building.

My heart briefly contracted. Had I forgotten to turn off the oven or the stove after making dinner. God, would I feel awful if I burned the apartment the owners had just remodeled and rented for the first time as an additional source of income. They were all gathered mighty close to my place. A group of women in headscarves looked up and prayed in a foreign language – maybe Tartar, maybe Tajik.

I nervously counted the apartment entrance. One, two, three was mine. Thank goodness, the truck was parked outside the fourth entrance. Not directly attached to mine, but close enough that a major blaze could spread to my place.

I stood with the crowd and watched. I saw smoke curling out of the fourth floor. Residents of the fifth floor apartments, on either side of the stairwell, stood and looked out the window. Of everyone, they were the ones who should really be part of the crowd standing outside. No one seemed to have bothered to evacuate them yet.

The blaze didn’t seem to be too threatening, not like the giant flames I once watched cracking through windows and shooting out into the air from a high-rise dwelling in Peru. So I went back home. And as I type, I can see and hear through the cracks in my shades – the glare of the fire engine light, the status of the walkie-talkie, the gossip and concern of the onlookers, a bang or two from the neighboring building.

Whether or not the equipment is any good, I don’t know. But I’m pretty impressed to see that two trucks arrived when the fire was still rather minor, along with quite a few fire fighters.

Ironically, today was the first real snow, the first snowfall that stuck to the ground and solidified into nice. Since almost no one puts down salt or ice, that means a very slow and slippery walk to work. I usually get in a good 40-60 minutes of walking a day in Bishkek and that mobility is one of my favorite aspects of life here. But the fun is reduced considerably when I’m forced to stare at the ground, instead of my surroundings, and focus on not falling.

Today I met up with some people knowledgeable about prisons in Kyrgyzstan. They told me that there are 17,000 prisoners in the country. In Bishkek, there is a holding cell and a main prison (“colony”). The prisoners with tuberculosis have been relegated to a separate area, called the TB prison. There are 400 or 450 prisoners there and half of them have TB.

“What are the prisoners without TB doing there?” I asked.

“They don’t want to move,” my friends told me. “The prisoners are organized into “families” and they don’t want to leave their families.”

“But they are prisoners,” I protested. “Why do they have the right to chose where they live? Why can’t they just be put in non-TB prisons?”

“Because the prisoners run themselves. There aren’t enough staff members to control them. So if they don’t want to do something, it’s not possible to force them to do it.”

They told me that during the recent prison revolt, during which a Parliamentary Deputy was shot and killed, all of the prison staff left and the prisoners were left on their own. The only reason they didn’t run was that the grounds were surrounded by tanks and the army.

This evening, at my Russian lesson, I learned useful words, like esophagus, large intestine, and spinal cord. As usual, my teacher, Iliana, got off topic, giving me a lecture about something we touch on during class. It eats up quite a bit of our one-hour class. And with only two hours a week, that doesn’t leave much time for vocabulary or grammar. But I rarely stop her because she usually tells me interesting things about the local life, culture or mentality.

Tonight she told me how poorly people lived in the mid-1990s, how young people educated from 1992-2002 received absolutely no education, and how the standard of living in Bishkek only started rising three years ago.

“Three years ago, you could buy a two or three room apartment for $3-4,000. Now, that same apartment is $20,000. Three years ago people started to leave to work overseas. So many people went to Russia and to Kazakhstan. There are Kyrgyz in Italy and in America. These people started sending money back, and only then could people start to think about things like buying property, starting a business, or buying a computer.”

She’s right. Kyrgyzstan has a huge rate of outmigration. I’d like to look into it more to get more specific facts. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it had one of the largest outmigration rates in the world. I went to villages in the south of the country where barely an able-bodied man remained. It didn’t matter that they were poor and educated. They could go illegally to Russia and find work in construction and other manual labor. They wouldn’t make much by Russian standards, but they’d make a lot more than they could at home. And the few hundred dollars they send back every few months is enough to significantly improve their relative’s standard of living. Local banks in rural areas do huge business in money transfers.

One of the best options for hard workers is South Korea. People there have to work hard for very long hours, but they can make $1,000 a month. I met a man in Osh who spent three years working in South Korea with his wife. They saved enough in that time to return, buy themselves a nice house, and have financial security for the foreseeable future.

It’s quite fascinating to see the practical results of open borders and globalization. Of course it’s sad that many are leaving Kyrgyzstan, and that many families go years without seeing their husbands and fathers. But they are likely taking work that Russians don’t want themselves. For them, it’s an opportunity and a chance to raise their families prospects. And that is heartwarming to see.

I can hear one man yelling at another outside. They must have found the person who started the fire. Then he called someone, it sounded like his father, told him what happened and started to cry.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Run in What Used to Be a Woods

Today my friend Sara and I went to visit a Western couple at their $2,000 a month house outside the city. The neighborhood, called by locals, Santa Barbara, was filled with giant mansions. A local man stepped out of a Mercedes in a full-length leather jacket, a pouty woman sitting next to him on the leather seats.

“This isn’t Kyrgyzstan,” Clara said, expressing a desire to see the rest of the country.

Her boyfriend and co-worker, Ulrich, is in charge of purchasing some cars for the organization he works for. He wants to import them himself. As a humanitarian organization, they could save $5,000 in customs charges. But due to the corruption, they might not get them at all if they don’t pay bribes. “I’ll probably end up having to pay half the $5,000 in bribes,” he said. His organization has a special accounting code for bribes.

We took a run through the neighborhood, to the nearby botanical garden. “This used to be the botanical garden,” Ulrich said. “But now, people come in with axes and cut down the trees to use for firewood. It’s just been left for the past 15 years, since the end of Communism.”

After the run, we relaxed in their personal sauna, complete with small pool, shower area, and changing room. It was a nice treatment for my incorrigible cold and I enjoyed the chance to spend time with such active, energetic people who are passionate about what they do.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Saturday Night in the Dark

When my electricity went out this morning at 9 a.m., I didn’t think much of it. It was daylight and I expect it would last an hour or two, a few hours at most. So I didn’t say anything, even when my landlord stopped by.

When I returned home at 5:30, just as the last light was fading, I still didn’t have electricity. But I could see that everyone else in the building did. Only then did I realize how poorly prepared I was. I had one little lantern with a fading battery. No candles, no flashlights.

I opened the drapes and tried to do a bit of housework in the last strands of light. Now, at 6:30, it’s already black. I’m sitting in the darkness, using up the battery on my laptop. When it runs out, I’ll lose this bright square of light and have nothing but a little glow from my cell phone to illuminate things.

What is there to do in this situation? Listen to my ipod, sleep, or get out of here. I’m waiting for my landlord to come over. After he does, I think I’ll try to find a café where I can spend the evening.

This was a busy week and I had little time to write. I came across some interesting characters, as usual, though. I met a nice couple who emigrated to Bishkek from Naryn a few years ago. The wife was 29. She’d just returned to graduate school and was teaching courses at the university. The husband, 34, sells cattle at one of the Bishkek cattle markets. Every week he rents a little Moskvich car, travels to cattle markets in surrounding villages, and returns to the city with FIFTEEN sheep bunched inside in the car! I try to imagine where he must sit.

They live in a small but warm two-room house. There was no furniture and a tiny black and white TV, about as large as my hand. They eat, sleep, and live on carpets spread across the floor. Next to the TV stood a statue of an eagle on a branch. Each week, when they received money, they put a bill into the small slot in the back.

“I don’t know how much we have, but at least 12,000 som ($300),” the wife told me. “We’ve been saving, for a TV and for furniture, for over a year.”

There has been a lot of publicity about rural people migrating to the capital, trying to steal land and demanding rights and services. I don’t know how or why this family came to Bishkek. But it was nice to see the earnestness with which they were trying to build a solid life for themselves and for their child. And I was surprised to see that they’d started their family so late by local standards.

One another interesting family was a couple who’d entered into what’s called a “citizen’s marriage” two years ago. That means that they live as though they are married, but they don’t formally register it. Both had children from their first marriages. The wife’s two children lived with them.

I asked the husband what he did for a living. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “It’s not legal. If you tell anyone, the tax inspectors will come right after me.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I said. (since I’m not including any identifying details, I am honoring my promise, even despite this blog tale)

He then led me to a shed outside the house and proudly opened the lock on the door. There, he had a whole series of contraptions made out of tin, tubes and buckets.

“This is where I make alcohol,” he said. “Once a week, I put it into bottles and sell it. I make a profit of over $300 a month.”

I thought about my neighbors in Osh. They also had a homemade alcohol production (called samagon). But they were much less cautious, inviting their customers to come right to their door to make their purchases, giving their dog reason to bark constantly at all the unexpected visitors.

I’ve started Russian lessons. Twice a week I meet with Iliana for an hour. It’s not enough for intensive improvement. But time is short and it’s good to have at least a little time each week to concentrate on learning something new.

Iliana runs a language school and she talked to me at length about one of her students, a Kyrgyz woman from the south of the country who is studying Russian.

“She’s 29 years old and is pregnant with her fourth child,” Iliana said. “She doesn’t want to have any more kids, but so far she’s had only girls and her husband insists on having a boy. She tells me that she doesn’t love him, that she doesn’t want to be with him, and that she doesn’t want to have any more children. She said that she’s having problems with her teeth because of all the pregnancies.

“I tell her that she needs to stand up to him and tell him to either choose between her health and having a ton of kids,” Iliana continued. “I tell her that she’s still young and she still has time to do something with her life. She always dreamed of getting a university education. But she was pressured to marry this man, a relative, by her family, and she did so right after high school. But now she’s committed to getting the education she couldn’t pursue before. She told me that after the baby she’ll sit home for one month, then will come right back to lessons. She wants to learn Russian and to go to the university.”

Iliana told me that women from the south are “deeply complexed.” She can’t understand why they have so many children.

I had asked her why kidney problems are so prevalent in Kyrgyzstan. She said it was because women have too many children. “After having a child, it takes at least three years to restore the vitamins to a woman’s body,” she said. “But these women are having a child every two years. They themselves are unhealthy, then of course they are giving birth to unhealthy children. I once yelled at an aunt who had already given birth to two mentally retarded children. Who needs these unhealthy children brought into the world? I asked her.”

Iliana herself is quite impressive. In her early 40s, she managed to go to London to study English for 2.5 years. While she was there, she got a job as a meeting services assistant for Price Waterhouse Coopers, making $12 an hour, enough to support her 16-year-old daughter to come study as well.

“People say that the best way to ensure your retirement is to spend on your child’s education,” she said. “You need to do that before you buy yourself a fur or a car. Then you hope that the child will buy it for you later.”

Monday, November 28, 2005

A Victim of the Revolution

It was a cold day in Bishkek today. While snow has yet to arrive, the chill winter air is here and the strawberries have finally disappeared from the market.

Today I went to a photo shop that was affected by the March looting. The owners had three shops. Two of them were completely gutted. They lost $90,000 in goods and equipment.

“They even took the carpets off the floor,” one of the managers said. “All that was left was our safe and an old desk that was bolted to the ground.”

They were able to save the most valuable possession, the photo processing machine, by standing around it.

“All this happened right in front of our eyes,” the Office Manager said. “We were right there.”

I couldn’t imagine what a horrible feeling it must be to watch an out-of-control mob tear apart a business you’ve spent the last ten years building and put almost everything you had into. Luckily, many of their goods were in storage facilities, instead of in the shops themselves.

The shop looks pretty good now. I wouldn’t know it had been gutted seven months ago if they hadn’t told me. However, they were closed for over a month as they rebuilt. And they said now, even seven months later, they have far less goods than they had before.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving in Turkey

I just returned from a three-day holiday to Turkey, where I spent Thanksgiving with Mark on the Mediterrean coast. No turkey for us, but the rabbit dinner was a great substitute. As was the sight of the turquoise waters, the pine forested mountains, the crumbling Roman ruins, and the scent of citrus, tea, salt and pine that filled the air.

I came back on a plane filled with traders from the Dordoi market, mostly middle-aged women. Many of them had bright orange or purple hair sticking up and shellacked in place.

There is a term for people who work at the markets, bazarni, which is often associated with uncultured. I never saw any truth to that until this flight. Everyone stood up long before the plane taxied to the runway, ignoring commands to sit. Then, when the plane stopped suddenly, everyone flew forward.

“Everyone is excited to be home and they forget that everyone else is excited as well,” said Larina, the 46-year-old trader sitting next to me. She had yelled at others to sit down, then hopped up to join them. She wore a large bandage on the back of her head, a result of a botched robbery attempt that morning. A Turkish man had tried to pull her purse off her, pulling her out into the street, where she fell and hit her head on the pavement. He didn’t get the bag, but she was pretty upset. “I can’t get rid of the awful impression,” she said.

She was a woman full of sadness. Despite the fact that she built up a good business over the last 15 years and seems to make a good income, she complained constantly about life in Kyrgyzstan, about how she doesn’t know any Kyrgyz and it’s too hard to learn, about the corruption, the lack of work for young people, the poor education.

She is married to an Afghan and a few years ago had the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. Her husband wanted to, but she refused, saying she was too old to start again in a new place.

“Several of our acquaintances went and they are all happy. Now, all the time, my husband says that it’s because of me that we don’t have a good life.”

At customs, people nudged each other, budded and fought in line to the point where they had to assign a customs official to stand guard over the lines. Of course, no one paid attention to the signs that said “Citizens of the Former Soviet Union” and “Foreign Citizens,” so I had to stand behind a long line of Kyrgyz citizens in the Foreign Citizens line.

“You complain about the disorder but here you are, Kyrgyz citizens, making a mess,” the customs officer said. “You are acting like children.”

I enjoyed my vacation, but it was nice to get back to my clean apartment. I went to the nearby market to stock up on vegetables. On the way, a rat ran out of the gutter and right in front of my feet. That was pretty disgusting. I bought peppers, cauliflower, carrots, garlic, potatoes and tomatoes, all under a dollar per kilogram – all fresh and firm and colorful.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


The past few days have gone by so quickly, with unfortunately little time to actually gather with people. Sometimes I almost feel again as though I live here (“I’m going home,” I tell people, when I’m headed to Nigora and Shavkat’s), but always in the back of my mind is the fact that I’m soon returning to Bishkek and that this is probably the longest time I’ll be able to spend in Osh for quite a while. I pass many people on the street that I know and recognize. And I wish I could tell them all that they touched me during my stay here. There is something about the people here that moves me – a kindness, a simplicity, a vibrancy, the courage to continue on despite the uncertainty, a connection with the place and with their families that merge the individuals with the environment.

Of course, I recognized that some things are better in Osh. The drivers here really are awful. And it truly is cold to have to walk outside for a shower or to use the toilet. Granted, I enjoy seeing the ducks and listening to their music on the way, but I think anyone would choose an indoor toilet and shower if given the opportunity.

Weddings are back underway here. This morning I heard the fast-paced, loud, eager sounds of the horns and drums of a neighborhood wedding. Unbelievable that there are still neighbors eligible to be married. Two staff members got married this week alone, and several others are actively looking for potential mates. I heard about one staff member, Melis, who gave himself 100 days to get married. That period expired November 20th, so his coworkers were pressuring him to find someone fast. This is the same guy who told me a few months ago that he was planning on stealing a bride as soon as he was granted vacation.

There was an agricultural exhibition in town for the past three days and the city filled with rural men wearing dark clothes and kalpaks.

Malan, our driver, told me it was obvious these were rural people. “People in the city don’t like wearing kalpaks,” he said.

The agricultural market didn’t last long. I had planned to go see it during lunch one day, but it had already disappeared. It only lasted half a day.

“As soon as they mayor and governor came by and looked, everyone packed up and went home,” Malan said. He was also hoping to buy some fresh country vegetables. “The poor people didn’t have any chance to come buy things. After all that time they spent setting up things.”

Many of the seminar attendees, including my German colleague, were without light (and thus, electric heaters) during my time in Osh. Luckily our house was immune from the outages. Shavkat said it was because our house is located near a school. It was very rewarding to see a large group of leaders gathered from throughout the Osh and Jalalabat regions. All of them had worked for between one and three years and it was rewarding to see the building of a young and promising leadership layer throughout the region.

The big news during my visit was that one of Bayaman’s relatives set himself on fire in the central square in Jalalabat. He wanted his relatives who were involved in the shootout at the Hotel Alai released from prison, and he wanted the government to find Bayaman’s killer. He didn’t die, but apparently burned himself pretty well and caused havoc locally.

In the evenings, I sat drinking tea with the family, and joining in on their discussions. On my second night, the boys were criticizing Shavkat. He hadn’t worked since I’d left and he was resistant to the idea of Nigora starting a business. He’d recently spent $2,000 to buy the Tico, but wasn’t actively using it as a taxi – saying he needed to learn the city first.

“Next year Osh will be full of Russians,” Shavkat said, clinging to his dream of opening a tour firm.

“You keep saying that and every year they don’t come,” Habib said. “The Russian’s aren’t coming.”

When Habib criticized the lack of income in the family, Shavkat asked why he didn’t contribute to the family.

“Because you are the man of the house and it’s your responsibility to support your family. When I have children, I will support them.”

With his manhood insulted, Shavkat went drinking the next day and was asleep by the time I got home.

Nigora found a space to open a small market stall for 25,000 som ($500),
but Shavkat had only given her 16,000 som. I encouraged her to get the more expensive place, for the higher income she could earn there would quickly make up for the difference in price. Nigora didn’t think Shavkat would agree. “I’m worried that if we buy that, we won’t have any money left at home.”

Friday, November 11, 2005

Violence institutionalized

Today I called Sevara, my 19-year-old acquaintance who was stolen against her will in Osh in April. Since then, she has become pregnant, her husband beats her and forces her to wash his feet.

I had a difficult time meeting her after she was stolen. But when we sat together at a café last month, she was already thinking of how and when to leave this man. She was sad and did what she could to reduce his anger, and his violence. But before she could leave him, she needed the wedding. “Otherwise, it is shameful for me,” she said.

At that time, she told me that right after the wedding, she’d go back to her parents for 30 days. There she could relax, be herself, and take care of herself. But today, two days after the wedding, I found her at her husband’s house. We couldn’t talk, since she’s not safe speaking freely from home. I can only hope that somehow, someday, she’ll find the strength to get away, and not subject the rest of her life to this young man’s demands. Regardless, a child she is not ready for is on the way and her life is irreversibly marked by his violence.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Back in Osh

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place…like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way ever again." (Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran)

Here I am, back in Osh, back in the room I lived in for ten months, with my laptop back on the table that I spent so much time sitting at.

It’s unbelievable how much a city can change in a matter of weeks. Just in the drive from the airport to town, I saw new shops, a new covered market, a new restaurant, one business that closed down, lots of lights decorating cafes, and enough cars to make traffic crawl through the central streets.

I went to aerobics and saw that Bayaman’s former club was still going strong. There were twelve people at aerobics, over three times as many attend the classes where I go in Bishkek (though, of course, it’s 6 times more expensive in Bishkek) and there were quite a few wrestlers there as well.

“Oh, JJ is here,” exclaimed the manager when I came in. This woman, the same who used to yell at me about my dirty tennis shoes, seemed happy to see me. The instructor knew my name and I felt as though I was back at home.

Driving back to my home, we followed the path I’d taken hundreds of times before. We passed my favorite shops, my favorite kiosks, the landmarks that constituted my world. I realized that for most of the people who knew me, the shopkeepers, business owners and other people that I had regular but casual contact with, I just disappeared. I was moving through a space that was so intimate to me, yet which no longer contained my presence. I was happy to be back, but sad to realize that I was no longer one of the small parts that make up the city of Osh. I wished I could move right back.

I loved the fact that many people – the attendant at aerobics, my taxi driver – spoke Russian poorly. I loved the thick, deep Uzbek accent. I loved the Ticos, virtually unseen in Bishkek (“I want a big, masculine car, no matter how high the gas prices get” one Bishkek taxi driver told me when I asked) that crawled across the city like little beetles. I loved the sight of people collecting the dead cotton plants from the fields, to use them to heat ovens that they’ll bake fresh lepushka in. I loved the pumpkins, tomatoes and apples that were piled on the counter when I arrived home.

Even at home there were changes. The family had bought ten white ducks and they quacked in a cage in the courtyard. Shavkat bought small chunks of coal, which can’t be burned, but cost much less than the large pieces. They added water, made them into circles and put some wood chips on top to help them dry. Later, these circles can be put into the fire and used as coal. But for now, it looks like they’ve put some kind of circular patterned tile across a part of their courtyard.

Nigora moved the kitchen to the patio of her home, instead of going outside to cook, and the family is no longer eating outside. We had dinner together in the guest room. Nigora made soup, a baked duck (fresh from the cage), hand-canned plums and candies. I brought a cute cake from Bishkek decorated like a ladybug and they spent a good five minutes enjoying the view before they’d destroy it by eating it.

After a leisurely dinner, during which we caught up on each other’s news, we sat for well over another hour talking about differences between racism, nationalism and tribalism, especially among the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. It was so nice to again have such an evening discussion. I learn a lot about local attitudes and viewpoints from them. In Bishkek, it’s just me, myself and I and the dialogue is much less interesting.

Habib told us how the Kyrgyz can’t be considered a nation because they are so clan-based and can’t find unity among themselves. Nigora and Shavkat agreed (Nigora said there were over 350 Kyrgyz clans). But unlike Habib, they didn’t think Uzbeks were any better. They talked about a caste system among the Uzbeks, in which people are part of one of three categories, based on skin color.

“So, people know what group they belong to. But no one goes around thinking that they are better than someone else because of their skin color. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

“They don’t say it out loud, but they think about it,” Nigora said.

Shavkat gave the example of a neighbor. His wife’s parents were opposed to their marriage because she belonged to a higher caste than he did.

“That just doesn’t happen,” Habib said, with his typical know-it-all attitude.

“How can he not know this?” Nigora asked. “He lives on a street full of Uzbeks.”

“Do you ever talk to any Uzbeks?” Shavkat asked him. “All your friends are Russian and Kyrgyz.”

“You don’t know history,” Habib said. “Have you read any books?”

“No,” Nigora said, smiling in her typical upfront and disarming manner. “But you have history sitting right in front of you,” she said, pointing at Shavkat and herself.

Shavkat talked about the ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in 1990 to 1991. “I was in a situation where thousands of Kyrgyz wanted to kill me, but that doesn’t mean that I now think badly about Kyrgyz,” he said.

The tension in the early 1990s was due to the Soviet government giving prime space in the center of the city to Kyrgyz. At the same time, they were making Uzbek families (including Nigora’s parents) move, tearing down their homes to build multi-story apartment buildings to give to the Kyrgyz.

“People started to protest,” Nigora said. “They said we’ve been living here for this long and you kick us out and give our space to people who have never lived here.”

Shavkat and Nigora claimed that in their childhood, there were virtually no Kyrgyz in Osh. Now there are quite a few. “And now that other Kyrgyz want to move here from the mountains or the villages, these same Kyrgyz who came are against giving them land,” Shavkat said.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Weekends with the nature enthusiasts

Yesterday I took my second trip out into the mountains near Bishkek. A local man organizes trips each Sunday. Everyone gathers at 8 a.m. on a central street corner and pays $3-4 for transportation in a comfortable bus and a guided hike. They all bring their own food and have a picnic lunch.

The organizer, Boris, is passionate about nature and tourism and the trips are excellent. Even better, almost everyone who goes, especially at this time of year, is local. So it’s a great opportunity for me to meet some fascinating people from varied professions.

On the first trip I became friends with a doctor, Natasha, who treats stomach cancer. She’s in her late 40s, but looks at least ten years younger. She told me that if found early, stomach cancer could usually be cured. But because of the poor diagnostics, most of her patients don’t find it until it’s too late.

“They don’t feel sick,” she said. “Maybe they aren’t eating too much, they lose a little appetite, or they are a little tired. By the time they are really feeling sick, it’s usually already advanced.”

Due to the stress of her job, she finds it important to get out into nature once a week. Yesterday she brought along her son, a fourth year student in the medical faculty.

Yesterday I met an interesting woman, also named Natasha, who works on counterfeiting money issues. She was dressed so nicely and so enthusiastically took pictures with a fancy digital camera that I thought she was from France. I was surprised she hear she was a local.

She told me that in August, her only son moved to New Zealand to attend college. She went with him and said the country was beautiful, quite similar to Kyrgyzstan in the prevalence of mountains. I asked how good her son’s English was.

“He thought it was good,” she said. “When he left, he had $30 in his pocket, collected as gifts from grandmothers and relatives. He thought that he had a lot of money and that he knew English well. Then he got there and realized that he didn’t have much money and he didn’t know English well.”

This diminutive woman, with raspberry pants, short dark hair, glasses, and a big smile, got ahead of the whole group. We walked three hours, virtually non-stop, to cover the 14 kilometers to a frozen waterfall. Most, including me, were exhausted when we arrived. She had continued on and added another several kilometers to her hike.

Ramadan is now over, though I could barely even feel its presence in Bishkek. No one that I had any contact with was upholding the fast. Only one co-worker gave up alcohol. In any case, Thursday was a holiday to mark the end of the holy month. Now I expect that weddings will begin again in Osh in earnest.

Today is also a holiday, some old Soviet holiday, like day of the revolution. I was hoping to take advantage of the three day weekend by traveling somewhere, but the timing didn’t work out and my passport is currently at an embassy, limiting my movements.

Fall is definitely here. All the trees are yellow and the leaves are regularly swept into the gutters and burnt. But it hasn’t yet become cold and the weather is good for walking. I feel lucky to be in such a moderate climate, where there is no threat of snow, even in November.

I’m starting to get into the rhythm of life in Bishkek. I have new projects to work on at work, I’ve found some aerobics classes to go to, and my apartment is starting to seem like home (though it is still uncomfortably quiet). Yesterday my heat was turned on. Until then, I used a single portable heater that I’d carry with me from room to room, trying to heat up the place I was spending my time. But suddenly, the entire apartment has become bathed in warmth and I no longer need the heater. I buy my food from a nearby market, walk almost everywhere and have several friends, mostly locals, who I can spend time with.

On Tuesday I’ll return to Osh for almost a week for a seminar. I’ll need to pack up the other half of my belongings while I’m there. It seems like a short time and it will be sad to realize that I’ll probably never be able to live there again. But I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, friends and staff again.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Life in Bishkek

I’m now approaching two weeks in Bishkek. It somehow seems as though it’s been much longer.

Leaving my family in Osh was very difficult. We’d become quite used to each other over the last 10 months and I knew even before I left how much I’d miss their company, our friendly dinners and our evening discussions. In my final days, I tried to spend as much time with them and others in Osh, to drink in all the scents, sounds, and sights that I could possibly take with me.

Mark came to visit three days before I moved. We spent a full day with Shavkat, Habib and Faruh exploring two caves near Aravan. For the first time, I saw some of the famous ancient rock drawings I’d heard so much about.

Mark and I made fajitas for the family, and on our last night, Nigora made us the apple cobber I’d taught her to make and her family likes so much. On the morning I left, I headed to the airport in tears. It was helpful to know that I’d be able to return a few weeks later for a seminar. I could be reassured that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d see them. And I was able to leave half of my belongings there, making the move a bit easier.

The view from the plane before landing in Bishkek was a bit depressing – dull, brown, post-harvested fields stretched out under a cold, cloudy sky. We were taken to the hotel where I spent my first week.

During the work week, I searched for an apartment. Mark was able to join me and got a tour of living options in the Bishkek capital. I worked during the day, adjusting to the new office and team, and spent my evenings with Mark. One evening we were able to attend a performance put on by an experimental Kyrgyz group. Even though it was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand anything, the excellent costumes, vocals, and the incorporation of traditional music in all aspects of the performance made it very enjoyable.

On the weekend, we took a trip to Bokonbaevo, a town of 14,000 on the southeastern end of Issyk-Kul. There, I showed Mark the beautiful clear waters and we joined a father-son team on horseback to go hunting with golden eagles. That was a spectacular experience. We rode over bare, rocky terrain, looked over white mountains, over the blue waters of Issyk-Kul stretching to the horizon, and to the red cliffs in the distance. Always ahead of us, were two men, each carrying a large, heavy eagle on his arm. It was a timeless experience. Though they unmasked the birds several times and even let them fly, unfortunately they didn’t catch anything. Despite that, the experience was still well worth it. When we returned to the hunter’s home, we were allowed to hold the heavy birds on our leather-gloved arms. Then we joined the family for a wonderful tea of homemade bread, butter, apricot jam and apples. Fox skins hung on the wall behind us.

The same day Mark left, I moved into my new apartment. It’s a good find, a 20-minute walk to work, located near a market and near the health club where I work out. The owner recently did repairs to modernize it and I’m his first tenant. It’s the perfect size for me – a living room, bedroom, small kitchen and bathroom. And the price is right - $250 a month, or $300 including utilities and cleaning services. It’s bright, clean and cozy. But very lonely in comparison with my living arrangements in Osh. I’d gladly walk outside in the rain to use the toilet if it meant I had people to share my dinner with in the evenings.

If I didn’t love Osh so much, Bishkek would be easy enough to get used to. It really is a pleasant city – green, relatively clean, easily walkable, and populated by friendly people. All kinds of little things surprise me, from seeing women driving cars (which almost never happens in Osh), to the softness of the toilet paper, the way the cars usually stop at stop lights, the vast selection in the shops, the street sweepers, and the garbage scavengers (which despite the poverty, I rarely saw in Osh). One reason I may not have seen scavengers in Osh is that we barely had any garbage there. Paper was burned in the stove for heating, cooking and preparing the banya, organic material was fed to neighboring livestock, bottles and containers were reused and there wasn’t much of other types of garbage. I find it quite difficult here to throw away my paper or my vegetable rinds knowing that plenty of stoves or goats could put them to good use. Unfortunately, there aren’t any nearby in my apartment complex.

There have been a couple of incidents that brought a smile to my face and made me feel a little bit like I did in Osh. One evening, on the way home, I stopped at the market. Three Kyrgyz men wearing kalpaks serenaded the stall-keepers, playing an accordion and two traditional Kyrgyz instruments. The music was lively, passerbys handed the musicians money, and the entrepreneur being serenaded prepared a small bag of whatever they sold (cookies and candy, fruit, vegetables) to give them. At the end of a song, the musicians cupped their hands and led people in a short prayer before moving on.

I knew it was part of Ramadan tradition for children to go around and sing and for people to give them small amounts of money to make them go away. I heard them often during my final days in Osh. It’s kind of like a 30-day Halloween. But I didn’t know that adults could do the same thing nor that they could make the rounds and sing so professionally.

In my neighborhood, I was happy to see a truck pull up outside my apartment building on Saturday morning. Crates filled with onions, beans, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and garlic surrounded it, while piles of pumpkins, squash and bags of onions filled the cab.

“Do you come here every day?” I asked the heavyset, aproned woman who was urging the crowd of buyers to take more, comparing her low prices with those at the market.

“Only on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” she said. “This all comes from our field and we have a lot of work collecting everything.”

I stocked up on all kinds of vegetables and spent just over a dollar. Knowing I could have fresh produce almost delivered to my doorstep each Saturday from a nearby farm was a definite plus to life in the capital. It brought the rural life closer than I expected.

In matters more pressing to the general population, there have been some large “meetings,” (protests) in the capital, following the killing of a third politician. He was shot when he went to a prison riot, where prisoners were protesting their living conditions. His brother thinks that the Prime Minister, Kulov, was somehow involved in his death, and is organizing protests to force him to resign.

Kulov, a northerner, brings northern support to the southern President. If he were to go, it would be a big blow to stability.

I admit I don’t pay as much attention to the political maneuverings as I should. Unfortunately, despite the seeming development in Bishkek and rise of an upper class here, the political instabilities remain. The potential remains for the situation to change at any time. I just hope that whatever happens, it will not be at the expense of the people outside of politics who are trying to work and build a life for their families.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Wedding During Ramadan

This evening Nigora’s niece got married. Nigora went to her stepbrother’s in the afternoon to help prepare food, and Shavkat went to eat. Earlier the afternoon, they’d gone to the market together, where they bought a carpet to present as a gift and some small wrapped cakes to serve to guests.

When they returned, Shavkat seemed pleased. “I wasn’t expecting many people, giving that it’s Ramadan,” he said. “But there were a lot of guests. About 200. We all sat and ate. The only difference from a usual wedding was that there was no music. That’s forbidden during Ramadan. But after a while, people starting singing themselves. And then we saw the bride and groom off in a bus to the groom’s house.”

This evening, only men were invited as guests. Tomorrow, a group of invited women, including Nigora, will go to the couple’s new home for a meal.

Nigora was under the impression that civil registration of marriage was completely forbidden during Ramadan. She was surprised to hear that they would register the marriage at ZAGS (the marriage house). I did see one wedding party moving down a central road the other day. As usual, the cars were covered with brightly covered ribbons. But they moved slowly and strangely silently, more like a funeral procession than the typical loud, honking wedding parade.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

My Last Free Weekend

Shavkat is just in heaven with his new car. Yesterday he went and put the car in his name and got new license plates. For the few moments he wasn’t in the car, he played jazz music from the car radio.

“I’ve gone all over the city today and I can barely notice any difference in the gas,” he said. “The car runs really well, so well.”

“Now Shavkat will never get upset because the gas will never end,” Nigora laughed.

The boys took advantage of it. Habib officially became a university student yesterday. He was running late for the ceremonies and again for the dinner. Both times he said, “Dad, I’m running late. Since the Tico doesn’t take any gas, could you drive me?”

“The children trap him with his own words,” Nigora said. “It’s tough to be a dad.”

Shavkat grumbled but was happy to have an excuse to drive somewhere.

As part of his induction ceremony as a student, Habib participated in a comedy route. Shavkat and Nigora were disappointed to not have been invited.

“There were only students there,” Habib said.

“But some of my friends were invited to their children’s events,” Shavkat complained.

“That’s a totally different event. Our jokes wouldn’t be funny to anyone except students.”

“You could have at least invited Faruh,” Nigora said quietly.

“There were no outsiders at all!” Habib insisted. I remained quiet but took his parents side. I would have also found it interesting to come.

Now that Habib had his party at the café (the famous 250 som expense), Nigora joked to me yesterday afternoon that finally he would be relieved from reminders of how much he spent. But at dinner, while Habib was still out, Shavkat brought it up again. As soon as he said 250 som, Nigora and I started laughing.

“We thought this would be the end for poor Habib,” Nigora said. “But you are still talking about it!”

He had been commented about the apple cobbler I’d made them for dessert from the buckets of apples they’d purchased on our last trip to Nookat.

“I was just saying,” he smiled, “that they spend 250 som and I bet they don’t eat like this. I can’t even imagine what they could spend 250 on.”

This morning the whole family sat out on the patio for breakfast. As usual, we sat crosslegged on mats on the floor.

“It will be so nice for you in Bishkek,” Nigora said. “You’ll be able to sit at a real table with chairs.”

I didn’t agree. In Bishkek I won’t have anyone to share my meals with. I won’t be able to look out at the ripening fruit on the quince tree in the courtyard, to see apples growing off another tree branch, to watch roses wither as the cold sets in. I won’t be able to sit in the cool fresh air, cupping a mug of hot tea, and relating the news of the tea. It will be clean and comfortable and sterile, but not interesting.

Nigora’s spy work paid off and is her niece is to be married. Unusually, she’s going to get married during Orozoo (Ramadan). The groom’s family doesn’t want to wait until after Ramadan, saying it will be too cold then. That means that they will just have a small, modest ceremony at home, inviting men on Monday and women on Tuesday.

“Because it’s being held in the home and there is not so much room, they can only invite a very specific number of people. It’s not like a typical Uzbek wedding.”

Shavkat said that doing it this way reduces expenses significantly.

I asked Nigora if they’d found out about the groom’s first wife.

“Of course, no one can no for sure. But people say that she is living with another man in Russia.”

“Has the groom filed for divorce?”

“He has submitted all the papers to court. But it can’t be done without her signature, next time she returns.”

“Did someone call her and tell her that he’s marrying?”

“I think so.”

It could be pretty unpleasant for the new wife to have the first wife suddenly show up and demand her place back.

“Is your niece excited?” I asked.

“Not especially. Because this isn’t love. He’s just an acquaintance. But still, she’s getting ready.”

Sounds a bit depressing to me.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Tico in the Yard

Shavkat bought a Tico from his neighbor yesterday, for about $2,000. It’s a tiny little white machine, like a little bug. He’s so excited that he spend much of the morning sitting in the car, with a friend of his in the passenger seat, talking. It’s like a child receiving a new toy.

“I’m off to register the car in my name,” he said. “It seems it runs really well!”

Knowing that I’m soon leaving, I listen to the sounds and see the images of Osh with sadness, knowing it’s unlikely that I’ll live here again in the future. I hear the haunting wail of the women calling “Airan!” in the morning, the sound of Nigora chopping on the cutting board, the noises of children playing out on the street, the sound of Lutfulo’s video games through my door, the sight of a middle-aged, distinctive, Kyrgyz legless man sitting in a wheelchair on a street corner, holding a baby.

I was supposed to go to Uzbekistan for the first time next week. But the combination of my move and my boyfriend’s passport and visa difficulties mean that I’ll have to wait for that.

Apparently, the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington, DC moved, but they didn’t bother to update their visa application form with their new address. So Mark sent off his passport and money order to a black hole. It hasn’t been seen since.

Luckily, with a large expenditure of money, he was able to get a new passport quickly and buy a new ticket to Kyrgyzstan. He’ll get to Osh on Friday, just in time to see me move three days later.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shavkat Loses His Job

Today Shavkat went to work and was told that since his geological company hasn’t found any gold in the area, there will be no major operations in the near future. He was told to consider himself free until spring.

So not only does he lose his $150 a month salary, they are losing the $180 a month I pay them. Together, that’s a tough hit. But now Shavkat is fully in support of Nigora’s new business venture.

“He doesn’t think it’s very likely I’ll have much success though,” she said. “He’s not very respectful of trade. He’s spent all his life working with tourists, alpinists and geologists and has become a sort of wild person.”

Today they spoke to the person who owns the land in an area where they are interested in selling and tomorrow he will show them a good spot.

Tonight for dinner we had a wonderful Uzbek corn soup, with little cobs of unsweet maize inserted in the soup, together with corn kernels, potatoes and small chunks of meat. That was followed by a late season watermelon that I brought home. We sat out on the porch, people coming and eating whenever they arrived. Together, we caught up on each other’s news and listened to the sound of the mosque calling worshippers to prayer from far off in the dark sky. I’m really going to miss those moments.

We’re now in the third day of Ramadan. I don’t notice it so much since I’m not fasting this year. I thought it started on the 5th of the month and it turns out it started on the 4th.

Nigora held the fast for one day. She said that the neighbor women were all planning to fast and were having a contest to see who could lose the most weight. Faruh also lasted for one day. Shavkat bragged about how he could go nine days without eating, but didn’t last a single day on the fast. No one at work is fasting.

There seem to be a less buyers at the food market during the day and I try to not eat conspicuously out in the open in the day. But other than that, it hasn’t had much impact on my life here.

Today I got home with the police officer/taxi driver who has taken me home several times before. I came right out aerobics into the taxi in my shorts, which I know is culturally borderline, but I’m too lazy to change back into pants just for the ride back home.

Obviously, this driver hadn’t had many passengers in short shorts before and he asked all kinds of questions about aerobics and what type of body I thought was attractive. Then he said, “You should be careful. Someone could steal you.”

“That’s illegal,” I said. “It’s against the laws of Kyrgyzstan. You’re a policeman. You know the laws.”

“Yes, but it happens.”

“Do people ever come in and complain about a kidnapping?” I asked.


“Do you help them?”


“What do you do?”

“First we listen to the situation and try to understand what happened.”

“Does it ever happen that you put a man in jail for kidnapping a woman?”


“How often?”

“Not very. If people fight the case through the end, it’s possible to put someone in jail. But usually people don’t follow it through until the end and it’s very rare for someone to end up in jail.”

There are several reasons for this. A big one, I’d guess, is pressure from family members and neighbors who think kidnapping is OK. Another, I would venture, is the unsupportive atmosphere they are likely to receive among the almost all male police force, many of whom accept kidnapping as a local tradition.

Today as I left aerobics, I walked by the wrestlers and was surprised to see at least three girls there. Two had their arms locked together and were busy trying to throw each other on the mat.

This morning as I biked to work, I saw a boy on a donkey carrying a large cart load of hay. A foreign car was behind him on the narrow road and was unable to pass the donkey. So, instead of accepting the situation and waiting a bit, the car pulled right behind the cart and honked several times, as if the boy could make the donkey go faster. I realized that I’d be unlikely to see many scenes that day in a typical day in Bishkek.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Joy of a New Computer

This evening I asked Reshat, our guard, how he is doing.

“Excellent,” he said, with enthusiasm.

That was the second time he’s answered that way. He seems to be truly happy.

“Why?” I asked.

“I have a new computer and life is wonderful,” he said.

He bought his computer, a Pentium 4, on credit he got from FINCA. I was surprised when he came and asked for a letter verifying his salary. He makes only about $30 a month at this job, plus an equivalent amount at another job as a guard. I wondered why he needed a computer and how he could pay for it.

“I’m studying at home to be a programmer,” he said. “I don’t have enough money to take classes, but I have a book and I teach myself at home. In the future, I can do computer consulting for you.”

I was really impressed by his motivation and initiative. And I thought it was a really neat thing to be able to get credit for a computer.

A few days later, our office assistant, Elmira, said she had also applied for credit to buy a computer.

“My two younger brothers want a computer so badly. So I decided to get one for them.”

Again, her salary is low and almost everything will go to paying for this computer. I don’t think it would be so great if she was getting credit for a TV or for a vacation to Turkey. But the computer seems to provide the opportunity for education and for developing skills, which will hopefully offer this guard and our assistant’s school-age brothers better opportunities in the future.

Move from Osh?

I just heard today that I may be moved from Osh in the next week or two. That of course makes me very sad. I’ve become close to my local family here and I’ve made as much of a home as I suppose one can in southern Kyrgyzstan. I love my work, the people and the town and really don’t want to leave.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Family news

Habib has been named class leader. He replaces a girl who was originally named the leader, then failed to fulfill her duties.

He was proud of his new position. His responsibilities include negotiating with teachers on behalf of classmates and serving as the liaison between students and administrators.

“Do other students respect that position or do they get jealous?” I asked.

“They’ll be jealous,” the quiet Lutfulo piped in. “You’ll have nothing but problems. Why did you put yourself in that position?”

“I won’t have any problems,” Habib said. “There are basically only three active people in my class. One was the girl who used to be leader and the other agreed to be the deputy. Half the students don’t know Russian and the rest don’t care.”

Nigora was proud. “They usually choose the smartest person in the class to be the class leader,” she said. She looked at Lutfulo. “Lutfulo is even smarter. Why aren’t you class leader?” she asked him.

“I don’t want those problems,” he said. But more likely, he probably lacks the outgoing personality needed for the leader.

Nigora and Shavkat are seriously looking into buying a selling space at the market. They went and found that prices had increased from 10,000 ($250) to 15,000 ($375) som in the last month alone.

“We’re thinking of buying a couple of selling places. Nigora can sell from one and we can hold onto the others and sell them in a few months,” Shavkat said.

His geological company is low on work right now. They are shutting down one operation. He makes $150 a month on a retainer basis, which isn’t bad by local standards. But he considers it a pittance. Now that he has more time though, and less income generating opportunities, he seems to be more supportive of Nigora’s venture.

I’m hoping she goes through with it and that it’s successful.

There has been a lot of talk about money lately at the dinner table. In September, the family spent almost $1,000 – largely on repairing Shavkat’s car after his accident and on entering Habib into the university. That’s quite a large amount and they felt the sting. Habib recently asked for $5 to go to a party at a restaurant with his classmates. This $5 has been discussed and joked about almost nightly.

“Habib is our most expensive child,” Nigora said. “He always seems to need money. Lutfulo on the other hand never asks for it.”

“Sitting at a café for $5?” Shavkat repeatedly asked in awe. “Where do they think they get this kind of money?”

“It’s only one time,” Habib said.

“Yes, once now. Then it will be New Years, then Men’s Day, Women’s Day, student’s day, some other kind of holiday.”

The family is not wealthy, but they are comfortable by local standards. The fact that they have a sit-down toilet (even though you have to go outside to get to it) and the ability to take a hot shower daily (even though that requires a walk in the cold as well) is pretty nice by local standards.

One evening we had a talk about bride stealing.

“Everybody talks about it, but I don’t know of anyone who has stolen somebody,” Habib said, with teenage derision. “That only happens in the mountains.” This was just after he said he expected 75% of the girls in his class to get married before graduation.

I told him of the several cases I’d come across in the year I’d been in Osh, including our own staff members stealing each other.

The whole family, and especially Nigora, really looks down on the practice. But they are Uzbeks and the Uzbeks don’t practice bride stealing.

“If the Kyrgyz can be faulted for bride stealing,” she said, “our weakness is that we often marry relatives. Luckily, my family didn’t allow that. But Shavkat’s family did. And he has a sister who married a cousin. All three of her children are abnormal. They got certified as invalids. They look normal from the exterior, but even when they were babies, they lacked the ability to tell when they were full. They would just eat constantly, then throw it up later.”

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Water Gushing from a Rock

Today the family piled in Shavkat’s Niva and drove out to a waterfall and tourist area called Ap-shirata. The older boys had classes and Shavkat was tinkering with the car as always. So we didn’t get going until one. I didn’t think we’d make it – given that it was a 2.5-hour drive there. But we ended up having a nice afternoon.

We drove past Nookat and toward Kyzyl-Kia, then turned off and continued another 10-15 miles on a much rougher road. Corn husks were gathered into piles like haystacks outside of Osh, the fields have been visibly cleared, and the mountains on either side of us were a dull gold.

The peach trees were already red and orange and the poplars had begun to turn a golden brown, the same color as the drying eaves of tobacco hung from them.

On the way, when we stopped to let the car cool down, we picked and ate apples right off of a blooming tree.

“I’m going to show this to the prosecutor’s office,” I joked with Habib as I photographed him stealing apples.

“This isn’t America,” he said, laughing.

Nigora told me that neighbors are allowed to pick fruit from trees that hang over the border of their property. “Because the neighbors have to deal with things like leaves falling off the tree,” she said. And the same thing with trees that face the road. “Anyone walking by has the right to take some.” And in the same way, I understood, we as passersby were allowed to help ourselves as well.

We passed a run-down tourist resort, then drove through the gates. We entered a canyon, with looming rocks looking down on us from either side. Suddenly, it appeared – a bright white gush of water pouring from a hole in the rock. It fell down, ran through tunnel, then crashed down upon a bowl, spraying water down a pile of rocks. It fell into a crystal clear pool at the base before running into the river that cut through the canyon.

There was a fenced-off grotto filled with pellucid water, a natural mineral spring, and several staircases going up different parts of the rock and offering different views of the scenery. As we walked along, we heard a hissing sound at our feet and saw water bubbling up from the ground.

We drove the rest of the way through the canyon, following a rushing white stream. Suddenly, the foreboding rock walls disappeared and we entered a valley. We continued to follow the river, but the mountains were further back, gentler sloping, and dotted with trees.

Choosing a place along the riverbank, we had a picnic of brown round bread, grapes, suzma (a white, thick dairy product from the mountains), picked cabbage and eggplant, rolls, hardboiled eggs and tea. Then the boys went for a walk while I read and Nigora walked along the riverbank, looking for herbs. She returned with a bag full of wild mint and another herb that she can use to fill ravioli.

Until we left, we hadn’t seen any other visitors. “There used to be a lot of people here,” Shavkat said. “Lots of people came to take wedding pictures here, especially Kyrgyz.”

On the way back, we passed two cars. The passengers seemed to be searching for the same things Nigora was. Several of them carried handfuls of greens.

An elderly Uzbek man sitting on a rock stopped Shavkat as we drove past. They spoke in Uzbek and Shavkat reluctantly drove off.

“What did he want?” I asked.

“He wanted gas.”


“It’s become expensive now and he wondered if I could give him some. He said they’d run out. But how could he have run out? They were from Nookat, which is just nearby, and they know what the road is like. If they were from Uzbekistan, I would have given it to them, but I told him we had a long way to go and we could run out ourselves.”

He told me that now when police stop people, either they want money or gas. Gas is now 22.5 som (56 cents) a liter. It used to be about 19. Shavkat is planning on buying a Tico tomorrow, the $2,000 matchbox-sized little Korean cars that are so popular in Osh. They are very gas efficient and great for going around town. But if you get in an accident, you’re dead. He wants to use the Tico for going around town and the Niva only for travel to the mountains.

On the way back, we stopped when Shavkat saw three dirty young boys selling buckets of apples on the side of the road. He bought them all.

“This is the very cheapest place to buy apples,” he said. In Osh, they cost 8-10 som per kilogram. Here I get a whole bucket for 35 som.”

“How many kilos are in a bucket?”

“Seven or eight.”

Nigora is tired from the past few days of non-stop canning. But as soon as we got home, Shavkat said to everyone, “Take any good apples that you want. The rest of them we’ll use to make jam.” So Nigora now has her work cut out for her tomorrow.

“I guess Shavkat can’t take a rest from closing jars,” she said, good-naturedly.

This evening the electricity flicked on and off several times. I think back to the frequent losses of electricity and water I experienced last fall and am hoping to not go through that again. I can live without the electricity. Our stove is gas, my heat will come from a coal-burning stove, and I often have battery-power on my computer. But not having access to water is a real pain. I don’t realize how much I rely upon it until it’s gone.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Uzbek cotton pickers

I had read in an essay about Uzbekistan that cotton is so essential to the local culture that the national soccer team is called the Cotton Pickers.

Tonight, Nigora told me that her sister’s husband, his father and all his brothers were big soccer fans.

“They loved it so much that they’d fly from Osh to Tashkent to watch the Cotton Pickers play, then fly back the next day.” Of course, this was during Soviet times, when flights between Osh and Tashkent existed and were affordable.

I asked her about the name. To her, it didn’t seem strange at all.

“Cotton is called white gold,” she said. “Everyone in Uzbekistan earns a living thanks in some way to cotton.”

Unfortunately, a sharp fall chill is setting in and I’m afraid our dinners on the patio will be ending soon, as will our extended evening talks. Soon enough, I’ll probably go back to having a dinner delivered to my room.

Only six more days to go until Ramadan and the weddings are still going full blast. It’s hard for me to believe that there are enough single people available to get married to make so many weddings in one month.

Earlier this week, Nigora’s brother called and asked her to do some spy work. He wants to marry off his 26-year-old. That’s very old by Uzbek standards and apparently there aren’t many choices available. They found one option, a lepushka-maker, that the daughter is satisfied with. Problem is, this guy has been married before and his wife has been in Russia for the past four years. They are not officially divorced and at any point, it’s possible that the wife could come back. She has a daughter with her in Russia and their son is living with this man in Osh.

Nigora was sent to walk around on the street where the man lives and to try to find out about his character by talking to the local women. She was nervous and wasn’t looking forward to it. But she put on her nice green dress, her green scarf and her gold jewelry and went out to spy.

She came back late that evening. “Nobody especially praised him, but nobody condemned him either. I learned that he and his wife fought from the time they got married and they spent a lot of time screaming at each other.”

“That’s not a good sign,” I said.

“No, but they say that his wife had that kind of character.”

“Of course it’s easy to blame her,” I said. “She’s not here. Why don’t they call her and find out from her what she thinks?”

“Yes, some more research needs to be done,” she said.

I asked if they decided to go through with the wedding when it would be held.

“It could be within a week,” she said. I found that amazing.

On Sunday I went to my second wedding this fall. It was at the same restaurant and at the same time as the wedding I’d attended a week before.

The bride, one of our employees, was beautiful and demure. When I asked a coworker if the bride was OK, she said, “Yes, she’s supposed to sit quietly.”

The celebration went until almost midnight, then the couple had to drive to the groom’s parents’ home in the village of Alai, almost two hours away. I would guess that the roads weren’t too good.

“Why do they have to go so far right after the wedding?” I asked the girl sitting next to me? They could let them rest in peace for one night, I thought.

“His parents must want that,” she said. I wondered if they would hang a sheet outside the next morning, as still happens in some villages and I felt sorry for the bride.

In Osh, cotton is blooming on the branches, President Bakiev’s portrait is appearing on some large billboards, and watermelon is nearing the end of its season, losing the brightness and sweetness of summer. My health club, owned by Bayaman, is back in operation. A huge poster with his torso in front of a background of mountains hangs on the wall, watching over the wrestlers.

Everyone is busy getting ready for winter. Nigora has spent the last few days canning peaches, tomatoes, pickles and red peppers. She prepares and cans them, Shavkat screws on the lid, then they put them on the patio covered with a quilt. The next morning, any cans improperly closed will have raised lids, so they can pull out the unhygienic products.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

other events of the week

This was a big week politically in Kyrgyzstan, with all kinds of factions forming and dividing, politicians worrying about threats on their life, rich people wondering if their past crimes would come back to haunt them. But in my simpler, smaller world, my highlight of the week was helping a 13-year-old neighborhood girl, Alfiya, to write and submit an essay to an American magazine. It was accepted. In addition to her essay being published next summer, she’ll receive $30. That’s a big deal for a little girl with an absent alcoholic father, an 80-year-old grandmother, and a mother who is a teacher, but has spent time off work in the past due to reputed psychological problems. It makes me happy to see how excited she is and to know the respect she’ll get from her classmates and neighbors for her little spot of fame.

I was also involved in hiring several people this week. That’s one of my favorite aspects of being here, is finding smart, motivated young people and being able to offer them work because of their qualifications and potential, with no attention paid to connections, bribes or anything else. We’ve made some mistakes, but in the time I’ve been here, I’ve also seen others develop wonderfully and it’s a great feeling to watch them grow professionally.

Nigora had a toothache. She spent a couple days in real pain, wrapping a pink scarf around her head. Finally, she went to the dentist and had the tooth pulled. They gave her a painkiller shot, but it hurt enough once the medicine wore off for her to lie down and cry for two hours.

By that afternoon, she was already up and at a parent-teacher conference at Faruh’s school. Faruh has been mainly studying things like theater and music lately. “The other teachers haven’t come back yet or aren’t around,” he said.

Nigora said that the teacher passed out a questionnaire to parents and that most only wrote one or two word answers. “But I wrote and I wrote,” Nigora said. “They asked me about Faruh, his good sides and his bad sides and what I wanted from his education. I said that I wanted all the teachers to be there, for them to teach him well, and for there to be enough books.”

Weddings continue daily, morning and night. Every morning by 6:30 the sound of cornets and rapidly beating drums echoes down the street, coming into my bedroom. One morning on the way to work I passed by one and was invited to sit with the men at a table on the street. I drank a cup of tea, then they brought out a bowl of fatty bouillon with a big chunk of meat in it. I took a few small sips and told them I was late for work.

“We’ll be offended if you don’t eat it,” they said. When I said I really had to go, they got a plastic bag and put the meat in it for me to eat at work.

Finally, today a Felt Festival was held at a resort at the edge of the city. Who would have thought that felt could be celebrated for an entire day? But here, anything is possible. A community development group with international donors set up the day-long affair. In traditional Kyrgyz fashion, nothing started on time.

We heard the music of a traditional Kyrgyz instrument group, had an appropriately fatty lunch in a yurt (the owner of the yurt, who spent 30 years in it with his family, ate with us), complete with fermented mare’s milk, and saw how wool was cleaned, carded, dyed and made into two traditional Kyrgyz handicrafts, shyrdak and ala-kiyiz.

I enjoyed watching the dying. A 60-year-old woman, who has been involved in the craft for 15 years, collected mountain grasses and soaked them in water for 10 hours. Then she boiled them for 30 minutes, scooped out the grass, strained the liquid through a scarf, and was left with a dye that turned her wool a natural shade of green.

She used to work alone, but five years ago she joined one of the unions of handicraft workers sponsored by this organization. I asked why she did so. “It helps me to gain experience, we exchange ideas, and we get access to international markets.” She earns 11,000 som (about $250) every six months from her work.

Bayaman is dead

On Wednesday night, just after 10 p.m., I was watching a DVD episode of the Sopranos on my computer screen. At the same time, the deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev was returning to his home in Bishkek. When he stepped out of his car, he was shot several times and died.

This was big news. No one talks about his bad side, but he is pretty generally viewed as a bandit. A very rich and powerful bandit and deputy in the national legislature.

I heard the news when my colleague checked the internet. I thought he had disappeared after the unrest at the Kara-Suu market and the shootout at his Alai Hotel in Osh. I guess it would have been smarter for him to stay out of sight a while longer.

On Thursday evening I tried to go to aerobics. The wrestling center and sports hall was also owned by Bayaman, an athlete who was also head of the Kyrgyz Olympic Committee. A wide sheet of paper hung on the front door with two black ribbons hanging on either side. In large black text it read, “Due to the tragic event of the murder of Bayaman, we will be closed to attend the burial ceremonies until September 26th.”

“All that work he put in, all the effort to get more and do more, and it’s all gone,” our driver, Malan, said.

The news stories say that the government arrested Bayaman’s bodyguards several days before and that he’d been left without protection. The Prime Minister, Felix Kulov, said that Bayaman came to him two days earlier, said he knew that someone was trying to kill him, and told Kulov the name. He asked Kulov to announce the name publicly should anything happen to Bayaman.
Whether this is true or not, who knows, but Kulov says he told the security services the name.

follow up to September 20

After interviewing all five candidates, Mirlan decided that he wanted the girl after all. Yes, she was married, but she already had a child (and for some reason, he doesn’t seem to think she’ll have another).

“She’s a bit older than the others and she’s going to be more serious. She won’t be ready to run off as soon as she finds something else she likes. She has a family and she will work hard to keep her job.”

So on Thursday, Katya was offered and accepted the job.

Friday, September 23, 2005

decision by mass gathering

No killer has yet been caught in the murder of the Kara-Suu market director. People were upset about that and some thought it must be someone connected to Bayaman, the former director. They demanded that the President fire the General Prosecutor for failure to do his job.

President Bakiev fired him. Then, in the village of Aksu, where the General Prosecutor is from, a thousand people gathered to demand his reinstatement. They threatened to march on Bishkek to make their demands. That’s a long trip – at least 12 hours over several high mountain passes and rough roads. But getting groups of 1,000 people or so together seems to have quite a bit of effect in the post-revolution Kyrgyzstan.

It’s like a clan system of democracy. People are active and they lobby in groups. But they aren’t necessarily lobbying for their own personal or group interests (the squatters in Bishkek are an exception). They stand behind their kin and their townsfolk, or possibly, whoever is willing to pay them, and make their demands by getting in the faces of the decision-makers.

But this kind of system holds little prospect for peaceful conflict resolution. If the 1,000 backers of this guy win, then a 1,000 backers of the new guy could appear; both groups trying to shout harder and longer. And one hopes that they are willing to stay only with shouting.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Lessons from a Convict

Today I noticed that our driver, Malan, was reading a book. He rarely reads anything other than the advertisement-filled local paper or an ancient English book for schoolchildren. So the cheaply made book, covered with a sheet of light blue paper, caught my attention. I asked what it was about.

“It was written by a local man who got caught up in making easy money. He sold drugs, engaged in unethical activity and lived a lavish lifestyle. But in the end, he ended up in prison and they took away his house.”

“What kind of advice does he offer?”

“He says not to get involved in those kinds of activities. It’s not worth it.”

He told me that he knows of several people involved in the drug trade and he can tell because of their extravagant lifestyles, their frequent eating out at restaurants, and their lack of respect for anyone other than themselves.

“I used to work as a driver taking goods to Russia and on many occasions I was offered to take a few kilograms of heroine with me. They told me that I wouldn’t be checked, that I could buy myself a car with the proceeds. But I never did it. Jail here is no paradise and I didn’t want to end up there. They told me I was stupid, that I was making a miserable income. But I work like a turtle, consistently and reliably.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Married Women Not Allowed

Today I worked with Mirlan, a local manager, to hire some new employees. There were four males and one female under consideration and we had to decide whom to grant an individual interview. All the candidates were reasonably qualified and personable.

He said he liked two of the boys. I agreed, then suggested we interview the girl as well.

“Your team has become a bit too male,” I said. The last three staff members taken had been male. If he would take two more, the balance would be seriously skewed.

“That’s fine with me,” he said. “I look at the resume and if I see it’s a married woman, I’d rather have the man. At any time she could become pregnant and go on maternity leave. It’s more profitable for us to take men.”

I agreed that was possible, but reminded him that in our experience, local woman are more productive on average than the men and more likely to fill leadership roles.

“So, she might take off 3-12 months for maternity leave,” I said. “Then she’ll return and be an efficient and responsible worker.”

“And then she’ll be asking for time off all the time because the child is sick. A man would never take sick time off.”

“We don’t experience that problem elsewhere,” I said.

“There are other people, like relatives, who can help with small children,” Camilla said, the 21-year-old who is about to rise to a management position after a year of work. Clearly, as someone who wanted to someday get married and have children, it was uncomfortable for her to hear her boss say that he didn’t expect much from women once they got married. Her brow furrowed and she looked at the two of us debating with an embarrassed smile.

“Still, if there are two equal candidates, I’d rather take the male,” Mirlan said.

In the end, we agreed to interview all five candidates. But I felt sorry for the local women, who not only have little choice in who or when they marry, but then are penalized on the employment front afterward.

A German colleague said it was not so much different in Germany. “Of course it’s illegal,” he said. “As it’s considered discrimination. But anyone hiring a 25 or 26 year old woman will first try to make sure of her plans for the next several years.”

Today Nigora went to the Social Fund office where she signed herself up for a discount card that will give her half price off medical care at any government clinic. Everyone else in the family was already registered. Then she signed herself up for the pension fund. Even if she doesn’t work, if she contributes 135 som per month (about $3.50), she’ll be eligible for a pension in her old age.

“How much will the pension be?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t look into it in that much depth. The workers were about to go to lunch. So I just grabbed the card and paid my money.”

“What’s the name of the card?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t read it.”

She is trying to work. She went to the market again today to try to find a place to sell dishes.

“There aren’t any places available for rent,” she said. “Only small containers available to buy. But they are expensive, $2000, $2500. I’d rather try renting first to see how it works out.”

She asked Shavkat what he thought about buying and he said he was still thinking.

“Papa thinks all the time,” Habib said. “But he never does anything.” Today Shavkat went out carousing with his friends, and probably drinking.

Nigora might be able to get a spot at the market during Orozo, or Ramadan. “Right now, with all the weddings, it’s high season,” she said. “And no one wants to leave the market. But soon it will be Orozo, then it will start getting cold. And I should be able to get a spot then.”

The weddings are really unbelievable. Last night I went to bed with the sound of an emcee yelling through a loudspeaker at a neighborhood wedding. This morning I got up at 6:30 and heard the sound of drums, trombones, and fast, upbeat music.

“No way,” I said to Nigora, as she padded in her nightgown to the outdoor stove. “These weddings go all night?”

“No, this is a different wedding. This one is on our street.”

“At 6:30 in the morning?”

“Usually the men go to work and can’t attend the festivities later in the day. So for them, they prepare a breakfast.”

This evening, there were also wedding sounds, though whether from the same one or a different one, I couldn’t tell. “It’s as though people think the world is going to end,” Nigora said. “Everyone has to get married before Orozo. And those who don’t make it will get married after Orozo. With the first days after Orozo, there will be another huge group of weddings, all the way until early winter. Everyone wants to get married while the fruits and vegetables are fresh from harvest. It’s in their interest to be able to put watermelon and honeydew on the table.”