Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Invitation to the Old Russian New Year

Today I walked the 30 minutes from my apartment to the center of town, feeling as though I was a witness to little snippets of life on the way. Enroute, I watched a young man pull a reluctant cow across the street, pausing for traffic, the cow bellowing in protest. I saw a large crowd of people, mostly elderly, lined up outside a savings bank. I saw a young boy hire himself out as a horse, transporting a cart full of heavy bags by pressing against the metal bar in front of his chest. Another young boy gripped a wide metal basket full of lepushkas, fresh-baked Uzbek bread, carrying them down the stairs to a café. I saw vendors lined up along the muddy, disused train tracks, selling red and green apples, oranges, bottles of bright red, green and orange soda. A heavyset older woman with a face dotted by brown spots crouched near a low table on the edge of the sidewalk, a deck of cards and a necklace laid out for display. I’m intending to try my luck at one of these fortune tellers someday. I went into a café, advertised “MILK CAFÉ” in large block letters. I ordered a glass of milk off the menu and was told they didn’t have any. An elderly peasant sat on a donkey and pulled a cart down a main street, right past a taxi stand, looking at me in surprise as I snapped a photo, perhaps recognizing himself as a relic of the past trapped in the present.

The snow is gone in the center of the city and the sun shone today. Only the white mountains gleaming in the distance remind people that it’s still winter. The weather here is very variable, changing from a snowstorm to a spring-like day within a matter of hours.

This sounds like a beautiful region in the spring and summertime. One driver told me that in early May, the view from the mountaintop is like looking down on a burning fire, with half of the valley red with flowers, the other half orange. Later in the season come the dates, almonds and walnuts that grow profusely from the trees.

A few hours from here is an Uzbek village, Arsalanbob, that is a major walnut growing center and also a popular tourist destination, with beautiful forests and a couple of waterfalls. Whoever comes to visit me this summer (mom and dad?) I’ll take there.

I’ve now been in my apartment for a couple of days. Even though the landlady lives in a separate apartment, she stops by twice a day, giving me the chance to converse at least a little bit with someone outside of work.

It’s also possible to meet interesting people over breakfast at the resort hotel, mostly visitors to Jalalabat. During my last stay I met an American Muslim, married to an Uzbek, fluent in Uzbek and living in Uzbekistan who is pioneering a U.S. government aid program that incorporates religion into development. He’d come to Jalalabat to see a family planning seminar being held for local imams, Muslim religious leaders. But since the hotel isn’t serving breakfast this week, I would have been in for a pretty silent week.

My landlady, Oksana, comes by in the mornings and evenings to bring me something to eat and while I eat alone, we have a few minutes to talk while she sets out the food. She told me that her daughter is technically the CBT member. But since Oksana lives closer and her daughter is busy with school-age children, Oksana helps out frequently. She lives in the apartment building next door, on the ground floor, so she is somehow able to keep 20 chickens. Right now she’s particularly busy because she had a new grandchild born in December. She told me that she’s doing a lot of laundry and cleaning up to help.

Oksana enjoys talking about her family. She has a 29 year-old son, a divorced father of one, who now has another wife.

“His wife liked to run around,” she said. “And everytime they met or passed the child off, there were so many scandals and arguments and fights.” So he moved to Bishkek, where he is driving a marshrutka.

Her 32-year old daughter, a former music teacher, just had the baby. She has two older boys and both she and her sons had really been hoping for a girl.

She also told me about a 16-year-old granddaughter, the child of her 40-year-old daughter, who has had three years of private English lessons and plays a traditional Kyrgyz instrument called the komuz. I saw a young girl play this instrument at Gulnara’s wedding in Bishkek and it makes a deep, resonant and powerful sound.

“She’s the only Russian in Jalalabat who plays,” Oksana said, with obvious pride. “And we didn’t force her to do it. She wanted to.”

Oksana is a strong believer in the Russian Orthodox faith. She was at church when I first wanted to see the apartment. Having spent 30 years as a music teacher, she’s now the choir director at her church.

She told me that she often refuses young couples who want to rent out her apartment. “I’m a believer, you know, and my sheets are clean.”

I nodded.

“Are you Catholic?” she asked me.

“No, but my mother is.”

“Were you baptized?”


“Then you are.” OK, I thought. If you think so. “There are a lot of similarities between the Catholics and the Russian Orthodox,” she continued. “You could come to one of our services. On Friday it’s the Old Russian New Year and we’ll have a service at 8 a.m.”

I told her that I had to work on Friday, the Old Russian New Year not being recognized as a holiday here. But I said that if they have a service on the weekend, I’d be interested in coming. I can’t imagine a Russian Orthodox church in the heavily Kyrgyz/Uzbek and Muslim region of Jalalabat having a very vibrant membership, outside of aging Russian women. But I thought it would be interesting to see who is hanging on to the faith and how the church is surviving.

She told me that their metropolitan got in a car accident and is waiting for an operation, so she’s not sure whether or not there will be a service on the weekend. But if there is, I’ll be there.

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