Monday, January 10, 2005

Living with the locals

This morning I woke up to a thick layer of snow covering the forested mountain overlooking Jalalabat. As I descended it in a slowly-moving taxi, the amount of snow became less and less. By the time we reached Lenin street, the central throughway, there was no snow at all, just a wet road.

On the way down the mountain, the road was lined by tiny bare trees, extending far into the distance, like orchards. My friendly gold-toothed driver told me that the trees on the left were date trees, those on the right were almonds.

“Who do they belong to?” I asked. There were no homes in sight.

“The government,” he said. “In September, we can come here and pick the dates and almonds. There is a guard here watching over the trees and we give half of what we pick to him (for the government) and the other half we can keep. So if we pick 10 kilograms, we can keep five.

“Picking five kilograms is a lot of work,” he continued. “Because they grow in bunches but the individual dates and almonds ripen at different times. If you are picking them for yourself, you should only pick the ripe ones and leave the others to ripen. That slows down the pace. Some people cut off bunches, like grapes, and just throw away the ones that aren’t ripe, a terrible waste,” he said, shaking his head.

Today I moved from my hotel room at the Jalalabat health resort to a compact little one-room, Soviet style apartment in a residential neighborhood.

The Kutbolson hotel is the nicest place in Jalalabat. The rooms are clean, and if not toasty warm in the wintertime, at least they are not freezing. The view from my mountaintop window overlooked the entire town and the valley extending to the next range of mountains.

But despite frequent foreign clientele, the service has not improved much beyond the Soviet times. Last night I asked for a heater and was told their only one burned out. I asked for two extra pillows (since the only way to keep warm was to sit under the covers on my bed) and was told they didn’t have more than one extra pillow. And this morning, when I walked toward the dark cafeteria, I was told that there would be no breakfast for the rest of this week because the cook is gone.

In such situations, I see the real lack of creativity that I frequently come across here. So the cook is gone – how about putting out something easy or self-serve, like juice, yogurt and rolls. But people don’t reach beyond their own responsibilities to think of how to compensate for someone’s absence. If someone is gone, their roles will not be fulfilled and people just have to deal with it.

The apartment that I moved into is part of the Community Based Tourism (CBT) project, a unique program that tries to put tourist income into the pockets of ordinary people. It was started by a Swiss organization, Helvetas, and seems to be relatively successful. People can sign up to become members of the network, either as landladies (most are women) of apartments, homes or rooms for rent, guides or drivers.

Those who provide accommodation go through a series of trainings, followed by regular monthly meetings. The topics include cleanliness standards for Westerners, customer service, and food preparation. They’ve come up with a series of pamphlets laced in every member home, advertising their services in other cities, as well as a menu of home-cooked meals that the landladies can prepare. A group of international organizations even produced a beautiful cookbook (that I photocopied) featuring healthy, Western-style dishes, all made with easily available local ingredients.

The CBT members hire a coordinator in each city and rent space for an office. The money comes from a percentage that members pay to CBT – 15% if the tourist was referred by CBT, 1% if the tourist contacted the member directly. In Karakol, the CBT members recently requested and received a Peace Corps volunteer, who will give the guesthouse owners private English lessons and help with coordination and marketing.

It’s a great idea and I feel much better seeing the money going into the pocket of this local elderly Russian lady than into the pocket of the big resort hotel owner. But they have their problems. Once people are in the network, it’s hard to avoid motivation by self-interest. The CBT coordinator, who receives a local salary, can be tempted to send tourists to their own home, or the home of family or friends, rather than licensed CBT members. In one CBT office I visited, the coordinator took people into her own home. In another, she tried to put me in her sister’s apartment.

And then there are also the local traditions that don’t always jibe with Western expectations. When I called a CBT office to ask about arranging a hike during my boyfriend’s visit, the coordinator told me that her mother had just died, and according to Kyrgyz tradition, she had to sit at home for 40 days. She couldn’t help me.

CBT accommodations are inspected annually and they receive the equivalent of stars, but here they are flowers.

In my two-flower apartment, one room serves as the bedroom and living room. I’m sitting on my narrow single bed, pressed against one side of the wall and looking at an old cabinet lined with ceramic tea sets and crystal. To my right is a couch and several chairs, all covered with the same dull brown and beige checked fabric that the bed is covered with. To the left is a Jinlipu TV, a fan, a tall brown wardrobe, and a large green plant on the windowsill. The heater is below the windowsill. The heat blows up from an open tube, facing upwards, causing the plant leaves to quiver.

Outside I can hear a young boy whistling, a dog barking. If I go closer, I can hear chickens and glimpse into the courtyard homes and over the corrugated iron roofs of the neighborhood residences. In the evenings, the call to prayer echoes over the city from a local mosque.

Inside the apartment, I hear the blowing sound of heat emerging from the pipe and the periodic rumbling of the old Moskva refrigerator. The kitchen has a small table, the 1950’s-like fridge, an old stove, a cabinet, and a tiny sink. The bathroom walls are painted like a bath mat’s – pale and dark blue daisies on swirls of color. There is a working toilet with a cord to pull for flushing, a sink, and an old, stained bathtub with a shower spigot. To get hot water, I have to flip on the water heater and wait 40-60 minutes.

So in short, it’s simple, but comfortable and warm enough. I seem to have caught a cold and am not feeling very well. The sound of the air emerging from the heater calms me and brings me closer and closer to sleep. Time for a nap.

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