Sunday, February 27, 2005

Election day

Today was the first round of Parliamentary elections. I had seen lots of advertisements and ‘agitation’ leading up to the elections and I was curious to see how they would play out. Everyone in my family was planning to vote at a nearby school, so I asked Nigora if I could accompany her. She agreed and again I was thankful for the opportunity to live with a local family.

We walked toward the school. The weather was nice and children, especially girls, appeared on the street like tiny flower buds previously covered by snow. Neighborhood women stopped to chat with Nigora, telling her that the lines were very long and it would be better to go later in the day. So Nigora decided to first go to the market, then visit a nephew in the hospital for an appendix. On her way home in the afternoon, she’d stop by to vote.

So I followed her on all of her errands. First we took a marshrutka to the central market. She paid for both of our fares and I resisted.

“I like to pay for all the passengers in my group,” she said. “I know that’s not very effective if someone is going to work every day. But for us housewives, we get out so infrequently, it doesn’t make any difference.”

At the market she bought clumps of fresh spinach for me and the family, and cottage cheese with cream and a sweet roll for her nephew. In the fruit section, vendors called out to me.

“They all know you already,” Nigora said, surprised.

The business at the market was slow due to the elections. When we emerged from the market, she asked me to wait a moment while she went to get something. She came back and asked me in a tone of conspiracy if I wanted to try some manti.

I said sure and we walked over to the tiny cafes, serving the low-income market vendors. Nearby, a row of women sold prepared food from covered containers. Nigora approached one woman and placed her order for one serving. The vendor pulled out a sheet of paper, scooped her bare hands into the manti, piled them high on the paper, topped them with some spiced onions and handed the steaming stack to Nigora.

Nigora and I moved over to a quieter area where we stood and ate with our fingers. The manti were small, greasy strips of dough with a tiny amount of potato filling in the center.

“Shavkat hates it when I buy these kind of things,” she says. “He says it’s not sanitary. But I like them and I can’t manage to make them so tasty myself. These woman specialize in these manti and no one makes them better.”

It felt to me like eating a local version of French fries – gooey, greasy and filling.

From there we walked to the children’s hospital to see her 12-year-old nephew. When we entered, Nigora had to pay one som a piece to rent an old, wrinkled flowered cloth for each of us.

“What are we supposed to do with this?” I asked.

“Put it on your shoulders.”

“For what?”

“To prevent infections.”

I laughed. If anything, the cloth was infected. What would throwing it on my shoulders possibly do to protect me or the patients?

“Shhh,” she said, afraid the attendants would hear and be offended. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but we have to do it. These replace the white coats that they used to have.”

We found her nephew in a room with four beds, two against each wall, a table at the far end under the window. The table was covered with food, including many dairy products, all sitting in the bright sun.

Her nephew lay on the thin mattress covering an old, sagging metal bed, playing a handheld video game. A tube ran from his chest to a used Jalalabat-brand mineral water bottle (with the label still attached). A dark reddish liquid was inside the bottle.

“What is that for?” I asked.

“It drains dirty blood.”

His mother was also staying with him, along with two other young boy patients and one of their grandmothers. His mother wore a patterned robe and seemed to enjoy the break from domestic responsibilities.

She told me that his treatment cost 650 som (about $15), including a ten-day hospital stay. She was able to stay with him because she paid a little extra. “The laws have changed,” she said. “If you pay, you can do anything.”

No one told her son that he was going to have an operation. They came to the hospital when he had a severe stomachache. The doctors gave him drugs and he woke up when it was finished.

On the walk home, Nigora told me that she suggested to Shavkat that they buy the first floor of a building in the market area and do something with it. While he was thinking about it, others bought them all up. Several years ago, she suggested buying a container at the Kara-Suu market. He didn’t want her working at the market, so she suggested they rent it out. At the time, it cost $2,000. They are now worth $10-20,000. “He’s so into alpinism and tourism that sometimes he seems blind to other ideas,” she said. He’s also against her working outside the home and since he clearly views women as lower species than men, he doesn’t seem to value her business ideas much. But they would be much better off financially if he respected and supported her a bit more.

On the way back, we stopped by the school again and the line was almost gone. Nigora had her finger marked with US –donated invisible ink at the door. They allowed me to go in to watch her and I was even able to take some pictures. It seemed to be run in an orderly manner. She got her ballot, went to a relatively private place to mark it, then dropped into a transparent container.

She told me that she was voting for the incumbent, an Uzbek who she thought had done some good things for the city. She didn’t seem to know much about the other candidates. She thought Shavkat would probably vote for someone else. “Sometimes I wonder how we live together,” she said. “We like different food, different music, and different ideas. Sometimes I ask him how we manage together given that we are so different. He said we love the same way.”

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The strangest things

Sometimes this place is too weird. I recently put an old pair of underpants in my garbage. This evening I returned home and watched Nigora prepare the stove. I saw the underpants I threw away several days ago attached to a piece of wood soaked with oil. This was to be the firestarter.

And of course, it wasn’t too surprising, given that underpants aren’t meant to be burned, that a stream of thick smoke emerged through the cracks in the stove once it was lit. But whatever. This is Kyrgyzstan.

What to expect if you get hit by a car in Osh

Around 5:30 this evening I was walking home from aerobics. It was still light out and the weather was beautiful, the dark fog of yesterday revealing a beautiful blue sky today.

I was walking down Kurmanjan Datka, one of the main streets in town, and had just passed Suleymane mountain, the main sight in town, and the associated complex at the base of the hill. I was thinking how ragtag the buildings looked and wondered why the government didn’t invest in sprucing up their prime tourist attraction. Or maybe it just looks better naturally in the summer, I thought.

Just then, I heard a screech behind me that I immediately identified as an accident. I turned around to look and saw something falling from the top of a car. At first I thought it was a bag of goods, but I soon enough identified it as a human. He rolled over the windshield, I saw his head hit the street, as though in slow motion, and then he rolled into the gutter at the side of the road.

The car stopped, as did I, as I looked in shock. I thought the man would be dead, and was happily relieved, when I saw him sit up, dazed, his head dripping blood.

I didn’t know what to do. I pulled out my cell phone, thinking I’d call information and ask for the number for emergencies. A crowd quickly began to form around the scene, those who saw it happen looking agape, those who didn’t seeing the evidence in the dazed and bleeding man, and looking concerned. Before I was able to make the call, the driver of the car and his companion went to the injured man, led him into the backseat of their car, pushed the cracked plastic windshield back into place, and took off.

Hey, this isn’t a bad country, I thought. They could have run away, but instead they immediately got the guy and were going to get him help. I was really happy to see that. The image of the accident had been disturbing, but I hoped he’d get help quickly and would be OK.

I was very surprised when I saw the same car stopped at the side of the road about two blocks ahead. I wondered if they needed help. Maybe the driver couldn’t see through his cracked windshield. I was ready to pay for a taxi to get the guy to the hospital. So I crossed the street and walked over to the parked car. I saw that they were dabbing the injured man’s bloody face with a handkerchief and talking to him.

“What are you doing sitting here?” I asked the driver through the front window that no longer existed. “You need to get him to a hospital.”

“We’re going to the hospital,” he said.

I stood there and watched them until he pushed the windshield back up, turned on his blinkers, and went. But he didn’t go in the direction of the hospital.

I wondered if I should just give up at that point. But something led me to follow the direction he’d gone. Sure enough, I hadn’t even gone another block when I saw the car stopped again, this time where a policeman stood.

Again, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Oh good, I thought. They’ve stopped and led the police know what happened. They will get help.

I saw the police leading the driver and his companion over to another car, leaving the injured man alone in the backseat. Again, I went over to try to get him help.

First I went directly to the man, to see if he wanted a taxi. But the car doors were locked and I couldn’t open them. When I told the people standing there that this guy needed help, they said they police were detaining the driver. So the driver hadn’t stopped voluntarily. The policeman had seen someone driving with a cracked windshield and stopped them.

I went over to the policeman, who was looking at the driver’s documents and copying down information. I told him that the man was hurt and first priority was to get him to the hospital.

“We’re going to the hospital,” the driver told me. “No problem.”

“The hospital is that way,” I said, pointing in the other direction.

“There is another hospital in Cheriomuha, where we live. We’ll take him there.”

I was starting to doubt him.

I walked back to the car with them, hesitant to leave before I knew the man would get help. Who knew, the policeman could ask for a big bribe and let them do whatever they wanted.

By this time, the injured man got out of the car and asked for a cellphone. There was a man nearby who seemed concerned, but he said his cellphone had run out of minutes.

“I have one,” I said. The concerned man dialed a number and handed it to the policeman. They said they were calling the medical attendants and that they would come to pick up the injured man.

The driver looked concerned that the call was being made.

“He says he and the injured man are relatives and that they will take care of things,” the concerned man told me.

“No, they are not relatives,” I said.

“Then they must have made an agreement.”

So that was what they were doing when they’d stopped the car. First, they’d taken the injured man away from any witnesses (except me). Then they tried to mop up some blood to make him look better. And finally, they agreed with him to say he was a relative. Anybody in his shape who finds themselves alone in the backseat of the offender’s car is going to agree to anything.
I didn’t see the moment of impact. I don’t know whether the man stepped out suddenly into the street or whether he was crossing normally and the driver just wasn’t looking. But the driver was definitely moving at a good speed and he almost killed another human being. I found it sickening that instead of getting him immediately to the hospital (which was only about three blocks away) he was thinking about his own interests. My goal in interfering was to try to get the injured man the medical help he needed. But if it so happens that now the driver will have problems with the police, I don’t feel bad about that.

The earth rocks below me

Last night I felt my first earthquake. Somewhere around four in the morning, I was woken up by a banging at the window. I’m not sure what caused the sound – the rocking of the window panes, some items on my windowsill knocking against each other – but it was a steady bumping sound. Then I realized that my bed was vibrating, moving to and from the window.

An earthquake, I thought. This is what it feels like. I wondered if I should go outside, but it wasn’t very strong and no one else seemed to be moving. It was dark and silent outside my window. So I stayed in bed and went back to sleep.

This morning I wondered if it was a dream. I looked around my room, inspecting the objects, wondered what could have moved, looking for evidence like cracks and scrapes. Everything looked pretty much as it was the night before.

When Shavkat stopped by in the morning I asked if he had felt an earthquake last night. I needed some kind of confirmation.

“Yes, I always wake up ten seconds before they start. I can feel them coming.”

“But there was one last night?”

“Yes, a little one.”

This wasn’t the first earthquake since I’ve been in Osh. It’s just the first one I’ve felt. They seem to occur in the middle of the night and being a deep sleeper, I never wake up. On several occasions, coworkers have told me about feeling an earthquake the night before, but I slept right through it.

In a recent edition of the English-language Central Asian Times, there was a frightening article about the number of earthquakes in Osh and the damage that could be caused if a major quake were to take place. They compared the potential for a major quake in Osh to what happened in Indonesia, claiming that one half of the buildings would come tumbling down in the case of an earthquake measuring more than 7 on the Richter scale.

The article claimed that Osh is in a region capable of producing earthquakes measuring up to 9 on the Richter scale. It said that Osh sits upon three or four tectonic fissures. They don’t know for sure because while Kyrgyzstan signed onto a project with China and other Central Asian countries to make an area seismic map that would predict seismic activity, Kyrgyzstan hasn’t made it’s part of the map because it can’t t get the $1500 it needs from the government.

This of course made me think about my housing. I live in an old house and it might not be the sturdiest. But compared to a multi-story apartment building, I think it’s better to be in a single-level home on a street of single family houses. It’s easy to get outside and there are no tall buildings around to topple over.

Just in case, I asked Nigora what I should do in case there is a big earthquake.

“We don’t have any big earthquakes here,” she said. “Only little ones.”

I told her about the article I’d read.

“But those journalists are just into sensation. After that article appeared, they said on TV that there was nothing to worry about.” I was disappointed to hear that. One of the points of the article was that the government was failing to invest in equipment that could predict an earthquake and warn people in advance. By telling people not to worry, the government-sponsored TV is only fulfilling what the article accused it of doing.

I tried to explain faults to her, that there is something under the ground, and if there are small earthquakes, there must be the potential for large earthquakes as well.

“Oh, you mean a volcano,” she said, clearly not having studied geology.

I looked up fault in the dictionary and explained how in places like Minnesota, that aren’t located on a fault, there will never been any earthquakes. But in places that are on a fault, they have the potential for earthquakes, and there is no guarantee as to the size.

She told me that we’re better off in single family homes than in the multi-storied apartment building. After the large Armenian earthquake, Shavkat was sent there as a rescuer. “He was in a neighborhood of six-story apartment buildings. But people told him that they used to be nine-story buildings. The first three story went right into the ground, with the people and everything. After that, he came back and told me that he wouldn’t live in one of those buildings for anything.”

Friday, February 25, 2005

In search of clean tennis shoes

For a while now, I’ve been in conflict with the manager of the health club where I do my aerobics. They have a very strict policy about shoes. Everyone going into the club must take off their shoes at the door and place them into cubbyholes. Since the majority of the club’s visitors are men who take wrestling lessons, the entrance hall reeks of sweat and dirt and toe jam.

I’m then supposed to walk in stockinged feet over carpets they’ve spread on the floor, around the wrestling mat, and upstairs to aerobics, where I am to put on my tennis shoes. The tennis shoes I’m supposed to put on should be used only for aerobics and no other purposes. They don’t want any dirt to get on their nice carpets.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to this policy. Since I often go by foot to aerobics, I’d like to walk there in my tennis shoes. Why add a second pair of shoes to what I have to carry? And since I have to be ready to move at any time, I try to limit my accumulation of things. The last thing I need is a separate pair of tennis shoes for each activity.

A few weeks ago they started becoming dictatorial, making me pull my tennis shoes out of my bag as I arrived and inspecting the soles for dirt. So I could no longer wear my tennies directly to the club. But I would still sometimes wear them at other times.

On Tuesday I went through the rituals of replacing my boots with the tennis shoes and sat on my step before class began. All the staff seems to have been instructed to monitor my shoes. And when the teacher came into the room, she pointed out that I had some dirt on my shoes and needed to go wash them.

I did, then came out to face the wrath of the manager, a tiny middle-aged blond Russian, dressed in navy warm-up pants and a yellow jacket.

“How could you come in here with dirty shoes?” she asked, angrily.

“I didn’t realize they were dirty.”

“How can you not realize it when you put them on?” She continued in a stream of vitriol, telling me I’m a horrible person and that if I don’t have new shoes by next class, she’ll give me my money back and I can please not come any more.

If I had another choice of aerobics classes, such an outburst would have caused me to take my business elsewhere. But since I need my exercise, I have to do what they say.

So yesterday, when I was in Kara-Suu, the market town on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, I decided to pick up some tennis shoes. Business had been good that morning and the majority of containers (the metal boxes people sell things out of) had already closed for business. There were only two containers selling tennis shoes still working.

Our driver Malan and I approached the one with the larger selection and I tried on some shoes. They were relatively expensive ($15-20), but I was in a hurry. The first pair felt strange, so I tried a second.

“Jump up and down,” Malan told me. I did as he said.

The second pair was satisfactory and I bought them. The vendor didn’t speak Russian well, so throughout the transaction, Malan translated, speaking Kyrgyz or Uzbek.

When we got into the car, he told me about their dialogue.

“The vendor wondered what you needed shoes like that for. I told him you were an athlete and that you know karate. So then when you jumped up and down, he was really impressed.”

“Why did you tell him I do karate?” I asked, laughing. “So that’s why you told me to jump?”

“I just felt like it. And when you jumped his mouth opened in shock. The local women here can’t move from the ground. He’s not used to seeing a woman jump.”

So I got a pair of shoes, and inadvertently frightened the seller in the process.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Spring Rain

Yesterday a light rain drizzled over the city all day long, turning to snow only in the evening. Shavkat said that the first rain of the year means it’s officially spring. I was happy to see dirt in the courtyard for the first time, rather than snow, and it’s so much easier to walk up and down the hills when they are not covered with ice.

I walked across the city and my hair dripped with rain water by the time I got home. It smelled fresh and clean, like young plants pushing through dark soil.

I know it’s probably too much to hope for that winter is on its way out. But I’m going on vacation soon. And by the time I return, in early April, spring should be here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Men's Day

Today was a rather humorous holiday – Men’s Day. As if every day wasn’t a holiday for men here. The original holiday was a Soviet one, Defenders of the Fatherland Day. It was meant to honor soldiers. Since most soldiers were men and no one wants to give up a holiday, at the end of Soviet times it became a holiday to celebrate men, the corollary to March 8th, International Women’s Day.

While International Women’s Day has always been an official holiday, this is the first year that Men’s Day has resulted in a day off of work. Our Office Manager, Gulnara, theorized it was because it was the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Someone one told me that President Akaev “decided that men are people too.”

So we had a day off today. Our driver Malan told me that he had plans to gather with several male friends at a chaikhana (teahouse) at 11 a.m., where they’d spend the day drinking and eating plov (fried rice with carrots and meat). My Ukrainian colleague Anton didn’t have any special plans. We took them both out for lunch yesterday, though Anton laughed, saying he didn’t consider it a very serious holiday.

My family didn’t have any special plans either. So I invited them out to a new Chinese café that has become my favorite place to eat. None of them had tried Chinese food before and they rarely go out to eat. So they got all dressed up. Shavkat cut his hair and wore a sports coat, Nigora put her black hair into a ponytail and wore a glittery dress. The three boys all wore nice shirts.

For $22 we had a wonderful meal of sweet and sour fish, beef with mushrooms, mutton with onions, duck, sautéed spinach, cauliflower with mushrooms, and fried rice with egg and onion.

When they first came in, Nigora whispered to me. “Faruh told me he’s afraid because he doesn’t know how to use chopsticks.” Nigora told me how she’d used chopsticks as a child. Her class teacher until the fifth grade was a single woman with a large home and she’d often invite all her students to come home with her and to spend the night.

“She’d have the A students sleep on the right-hand side of the room, the B and C students on the left, and the D students at the base.” She said that this teacher was like a mother to them and the kids enjoyed spending time at her house. “She had chopsticks and so we’d eat noodles with chopsticks there. I used to be able to use them well, but I think I’ve forgotten by now,” she said.

Faruh picked up the skill the quickest and Lutfulo did OK, while Habib and Shavkat struggled.

“We better get some forks or dad is going to go hungry,” Habib said. But Shavkat was determined, not one to admit defeat. He played with the chopsticks throughout the meal and asked Nigora to buy some at the market. “I need to learn how to use them,” he said.

All the boys received gifts at school yesterday. Faruh got gifts from his classmates, Lutfulo was taken out to a café and to a war movie (at a DVD hall), and Habib seems to have a girlfriend, having received a nice watch from a female classmate.

They told me that when the boys want to get married, Nigora will bake a large lepushka (round bread) and take it to the family of the girl. The boys accepted this tradition, as long as they could pick out the girl themselves. Nigora and Shavkat told how their parents found them their spouse.

“I waited so long to get married that Shavkat was the only person left to marry,” Nigora said.

Shavkat retold the story of why he wanted to marry Nigora – because she didn’t want to marry him. “There were plenty of girls interested in marrying me. So when this girl refused, I decided that was the one I wanted to marry.”

Nigora laughed. “His family brought all kinds of presents to me, dresses and other nice things. I gathered them all and took them back to his house, saying I didn’t want them. My parents were so angry with me.”

She eventually agreed to marry, at the old age of 25, only due to the pressure of her parents. “I’m the youngest in the family and my parents were already in their 70s. My father felt he was nearing the end of his life and told me that if I wanted to be married while they were still around, I need to do so right away, for he wouldn’t be there the next year.”

“Was he there the next year?” I asked.

“He died two years later, three months after Lutfulo was born. He told me that he could rest in peace, knowing that I had a good husband and a son.”

Nigora plans for her sons to marry during their fourth year of university study, but both Shavkat and Lutfulo (currently in his second year), think that’s too early.

Shavkat said it’s important to get an education first. He told how his father died at age 39. He’d been a driver in the mountains and said that he’d gotten sick from the cold and primitive conditions during Soviet times. Once he stopped driving, he prepared and sold some kind of Muslim tobacco. After his death, his mother raised her children, but couldn’t afford to give them educations. So it’s important to Shavkat that his sons have the opportunity to study.

Despite his mother having raised him alone, that didn’t raise Shavkat’s esteem of women. He repeated his belief that the man is most important and the woman is in second place, a belief he takes seriously.

Everyone in the family seems to love, but also to mock Shavkat. When Shavkat talks about the preeminence of men, Nigora smiles and says fine. The boys laughed at how Shavkat fears snakes when they go mushroom hunting, while Habib wants to capture a snake and try eating it. He was hoping there would be snake on the menu at the Chinese restaurant. Both of the older boys laughed at their father’s inability to fish.

We had a nice time. Outside it was drizzling and grey, but the café was brightly lit, with the Chinese version of MTV showing on a television and a steady stream of hot and tasty food landing on our table.

Later this evening, Nigora told me that the boys had really enjoyed the lunch and I was glad to hear that. They are a nice family and I’m glad to have the opportunity to live with them. And as Nigora told me today, she’s happy to have me here, so she is no longer the only female around.

Monday, February 21, 2005

My first invitation home

In the last few days, the white blanket of the sky has lifted, revealing the sun. The ice has melted, leaving mud in its place. Never did I think mud would be so attractive. The signs of spring have appeared before, only for us to fall right back into the cold of winter. But I’m going on vacation during the second half of March and have been assured that spring will definitely be here by early April. So there are only a few more weeks to go. I can’t wait to pull my bike out of storage and start getting more exercise.

Last night the children tried to make shashlik on a small outdoor grill, but for some reason, they didn’t have any luck. So Nigora reverted to grilling over the stove, taking off the burner and setting the beef skewers over the flame. I told her I’d like to take a picture, so she invited me inside.

It was the first time I’d been inside their portion of the house. A few days ago Nigora said that they never invited me over because it was dirty there.

“You can probably tell by now that I’m not the type of person who is bothered by a bit of dirt,” I said.

Nigora, Shavkat and their three teenage sons live in two rooms. Since I felt like coming into their residence was a privilege, I tried not to peer too intently at their living conditions.

They invited me into the living room to look at digital photos on their computer. A foreign friend gave them a nice digital camera and they showed me pictures of collecting mushrooms on emerald green hills, of picking wild flowers, of views from the tops of mountains. It made me so excited to experience Kyrgyzstan in the summer. It looks unbelievably beautiful.

Also in the living room was the TV and a stack of rugs. I didn’t look carefully, but I think they probably sleep on mats and rugs on the floor.

The second room was the kitchen. A gas and coal stove divided the two rooms, providing heat, as well as a cooking surface for Nigora. Most of the room was taken up by a raised platform, on which were spread mats and a low table. Shavkat told me that the stove kept the kitchen warm and the platform could be used either for eating or sleeping. We sat cross-legged on the mats around the table. It was really quite comfortable. Nigora handed out dishes of mashed potatoes with beef kebabs and a homemade ketchup. She opened a large jar of canned peaches, pouring the sugary juice into cups to drink (called compote), with a whole peach at the bottom of each glass for dessert. Habib asked for refills repeatedly and by the end of the night, the giant container was already emptied.

Nigora recalled her surprise when she was first married and she saw how Shavkat’s family ate.

“They would open a large jar of compote and at the end of the meal, it was already empty. Or they’d set out a big jar of jam. By the next day it was half gone and the following day it had disappeared. Whereas, all my siblings had married and just my parents and I lived together. When we opened a jar of jam it would last forever. I remember going home to my mother. “Oh, how they eat!” I told her.”

After dinner, I returned to my space to get ready for the banya.

“If you ever want to watch TV, feel free to come over,” Nigora said.

I’m unlikely to do so without an invitation. Given that five people live in the same space I live in, I feel selfish imposing another person into their space. But I felt good that they trusted me enough to invite me into their home, that they could be themselves around me.

While by Western standards, their living standards aren’t very high, by local standards they are not bad off. They have a computer, a TV, a car, a digital camera, foreign friends and a strong family. Moreover, as I saw from the photos, while in the winter these conditions can be rough, in the summer this looks like a nice place to live. It’s no problem to go outside to the bathroom in the summer, colorful flowers grow in the courtyard garden, figs grow on trees in their front yard, and two of the boys sleep in the room (currently unused) across from mine.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Shavrat breaks his New Year promise

Last night the power went off for two hours, as has been happening regularly lately. I sat in the silent blackness, hearing only the flames licking the coal in the stove, the room dimly illuminated by a kerosene lamp and the glow from my laptop.

Nigora, usually an excellent cook, had prepared liver shashlik (kebabs) that evening. I don’t like liver and the shashlik sat on my table, uneaten, the smell of liver infiltrating both of my rooms.

Shortly after she’d dropped off the liver, she returned through the black doorway. “Shavkat is drunk,” she told me. She said that he’d come home and told her that her shashlik isn’t very good and that the shashlik available on the street is much better.

“He said he wants to invite you to go get shashlik there,” she said. ‘I came to warn you because he’s drunk and in my opinion, there is no need to go out on the street at night. I told him he could invite you another day, but he wants to tonight. So if he stops by, you should tell him you are already sleeping.”

True to Nigora’s promise, Shavkat did eventually come and invite me to have shashlik. He knocked on my door and was polite, but definitely drunk, speaking with a bit of a slur and smiling a shiny gold-toothed smile.

He had promised to give up both smoking and drinking on the New Year and I was sad to see that he’d already returned to drinking, especially knowing how much his wife and sons hate it when he’s drunk.

I told him thanks for the offer, but I’d already eaten.

“But there is beer there, and people…,” he said.

“Thanks, but I’m planning to go to bed soon.”

“Bed? Tomorrow is Sunday and it’s only 8.”

“But my boyfriend is calling soon and after that I’m going to bed,” I said, trying my third excuse.

“Oh, he’s calling now?” he asked. That worked.

“Yes,” I said. “But I’d love to try the shashlik on another day.”

“OK,” he said, and left. I had to give him credit, he’s a nice and polite guy, even when drunk. I wondered what goes through his head when he drinks – the loss of his friend during a mountainclimbing expedition, feelings of failure, of not having regular work, of not having fulfilled his dream of setting up his own business. Does he not look at the good things – at having raised three well-behaved sons, of doing a good job at his work, of creating a good home for his family?

This morning I met him in the courtyard as I returned to my room from the shower. “Sorry about last night,” he said. “There was a holiday.”

“Which holiday?”

“Men’s day (on Wednesday). Some of the men in the neighborhood decided to celebrate a bit early. You know, we can also prepare good shashlik at home. Today being Sunday, there will be a lot of people on the street, so maybe it’s better to make it at home.” He looked abashed.

“That’s fine,” I said.

A little while later Nigora came into my room. I asked if this was the first time Shavkat had drunk since making his promise.

“He drank a little bit once before. But this was the first time he’d drunk a lot. And I was really angry with him, but I couldn’t yell at him last night. It doesn’t do any good to yell at a man when it’s drunk. All men are the same – it just makes them mean. So I just tried to get him to bed. But today I yelled at him. Drinking a little bit is one thing, but I don’t like it when he gets drunk.”

It seemed that they must not be speaking to each other, because when I told her he’d offered to make shashlik at home today, that was news to her.

“That will be good shashlik,” she said. “The children will make it. We have a small grill just for home use. Last night I made the shashlik on the stove and Shavkat said it wasn’t good shashlik.”

She told me that she’d run out of coal and that Shavkat should go buy more today. Just a few blocks from our home, there is a spot where trucks filled with coal park and sell the coal out of the back of the truck. These trucks come from villages where they pull coal out of the mountains. “If we get the coal today, then we’ll be able to make a banya tonight.”

Sounds good to me, grilled kebabs and a banya. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday evening.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Good morning in Osh

Here’s what getting up in the morning can be like in Osh. I woke up at seven. Two minutes later, the electricity went out. I hoped there would still be enough hot water left and went outside to take a shower. When I got to the bathing area, I could hear water running. Someone was in there, so I waited outside until it became free.

The dog growled at my loitering presence, but I ignored him. He is little and I’ve gotten used to him. Then Nigora came out of the front door and just as she approached me, the dog flew at me, barking and biting my pants (even though they all swear he doesn’t bite) as I screamed at him to go away.

When Lutfulo came out of the shower, I went into the dark steaming room to undress. When I emerged to where the shower is, I saw by the light of a small window that the bathtub was full and the fish I’d purchased yesterday were in the water, half of them floating, the other half at the bottom of the tub. Somehow they’d survived their time in the car trunk, an hour on a shelf next to smelly shoes at the gym, and the trip home. I showered under watchful fish eyes, wrapped a towel around my wet hair, and went back outside to get to my room, where I’d again sit in darkness while my hair dried.

Nigora put Max, whining, into the chicken coop, where he’d spend the day as punishment for his outburst.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

JJ day

This evening I came home after a long day. I spent four hours on a washboard-like bumpy road, visiting the village of Uzgen. And after work, I spent an hour and a half at aerobics. I was resigned to returning home, where I expected I’d spend several hours using the light of a candle or a kerosene lamp, as I have almost every night this week. With all the water Kyrgyzstan has, electricity should be one commodity that Kyrgyzstan has in abundance. But supplies are short and the city economizes by shutting off power for several hours at a time per neighborhood. I’ve heard different explanations: the amount of electricity provided is proportional to how many people in that neighborhood pay their electric bills (many people pay bribes to the meter reader and have their numbers turned back), Kyrgyzstan is selling all its energy to Uzbekistan.

Yesterday morning I couldn’t find a coworker. Finally, I found him in another office. He’d plugged in an electric shaver and was quickly shaving, without a mirror.

“Sorry,” he said, visibly embarrassed. “We don’t have any power at home.”

“No problem,” I said. “I brush my teeth at work since I don’t feel like going outside to the sink in the morning.”

So I was surprised to come home and see my room visibly sparking. Nigora was reattaching the curtains to the windows. “Today was jj day,” she explained. I cleaned and washed all the curtains and sheets, Shavkat cleaned out the stove and repaired all the cracks, so you shouldn’t have any more smoke, Habib installed a stereo for you to listen to it (it was on my windowsill), and Lutfulo had the job of dusting soot off all your books and covering them. Only Faruh didn’t participate. He was at school.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very fun day,” I said.

“I’ve been noticing that it’s been getting dirty, but I haven’t had time,” she said. “Shavkat scolded me, told me that your room is all dirty from the smoke coming out of the stove. And I should have told him so he could fix him.”

I was wondering lately if I’d been getting gassed or somehow affected from the stove. I noticed that whenever I lay on my bed to read, even if it was early, I’d soon be almost immobilized with exhaustion. It is quite a treat to come home to electricity, warmth, music, freshly washed sheets and curtains. I just have to let the fact that the entire family was in my room slip by. I have to accept that a lack of privacy is part of the package. I suppose I could tell them that I’d like more privacy, but they almost always come in to do something nice – to light the stove, to bring me dinner, to hang my laundry over the heater to dry. So it’s easier for now to just try to adapt.

People tell me that by this time last year it was already getting warm. But in Osh, it’s still cold this year. When I go outside to the shower in the mornings, my plastic sandals often pass over a fine layer of snow. Sometimes the flakes get onto my toes, chilling them before I hit the warm water of the shower.

It’s a downhill walk to work and it can be treacherous. One, the use of salt, sand or other melting or stabilizing agents is virtually nonexistent. Second, the children entertain themselves by sliding down the hills on the soles of their slippery rubber boots. So the walkways become especially icy-slick with the wear of tiny feet repeatedly sliding over the surface.

On the positive side, the locals are very helpful. Earlier this week, I saw an elderly woman in a long Uzbek sweater fall on her peacock-decorated back as she tried to descend the hill. She sat there for several minutes and a young man ran across the hill to help her, holding her arm the rest of the way down the hill. This morning, an unknown man offered me a hand as I descended an especially slippery part.

I live in a neighborhood that is virtually exclusively Uzbek. I’ve heard it referred to by a word, something like mahabat, that I understand to mean an ethnic enclave. Once a Kyrgyz friend and her brother were driving me home at night.

“I’d be afraid to walk in your neighborhood at night,” she told me.


“Because I’m different and everyone would notice.”

“I’m different too and I haven’t had any problems.”

“But you live there. You are one of them.”

“I haven’t even met any of the neighbors,” I protested.

“But they all know you. Probably even before you came they all knew you. In those kinds of neighborhoods, everybody knows everything about the people on their block. And once a family there takes you in, you become one of them.”

I’d been told that living with a family on this street would be about as good of a security situation as I could find. And I guess they were right.

This past weekend we held a recruitment session and hired a bunch of people. We took less than 10 from 124 candidates, but it always feels good to be able to offer employment here, where it is so needed. I also find the interviews pretty interesting. Locals here don’t hesitate to ask personal questions, such as marriage status or plans, or how people (especially women) will balance childcare and housework with work. In one interview of a 27-year-old Uzbek woman with two children, they even asked what her husband and her in-laws would think of her working (she ended up getting the job).

They frequently hire students in their fourth or fifth year of study (the standard university program is five years). It’s usually not a problem, as going to class doesn’t seem to be a very important part of education here. Students can just come for the exams. And if they can’t pass them without having attended any classes, they can easily pay for a decent grade. All this is well-known, but just in case the applicant happens to be a diligent student, they ask how the candidate will balance studies and work.

A 20-year-old student in her fifth year named Dinara assured us it would be no problem. “I’m in my fifth year and I only have my thesis left.”

“But even a thesis is a lot of work,” an interviewer asked.

“Oh no it’s not. I can do it in a day.”

“A day?”

“Of course. There are plenty of theses available online. All I have to do is copy one and turn it in. I can do it in an hour.”

I know that happens frequently here. My Bishkek friend Zhenya was really upset when her teachers discovered she’d turned in the same thesis as her friend. But that was the first time I’d heard someone admit it so openly, especially in a job interview, completely without shame. She didn’t get the job, but not for that reason. Her results on a test were very weak. So maybe spending some time in class or doing schoolwork does have some benefit.

Today I went to Uzgen, a painfully bumpy two-hour trip along a terrible road. At the market there, I bought mountain honey, which is supposed to be especially good from Uzgen. I also saw fat sold in glass vials. I asked a local what that was for and they said they drink it (I think with milk) if they have a really bad cold.

On the way back home, I bought several fish from a young man on the side of the road. At a particular intersection near a village and a river, young man stand alongside the roadside and hold up fresh fish for sale. During the summer I might worry, but in the winter, it’s so cold that the fish are well-refrigerated. The fish I bought today were clearly right from the river. The vendor slapped the fish hanging from string. “See, they are still alive,” he said. For three dollars I got about 12 fresh fish, more than enough for the family of five I live with and me to get at least a meal or two out of it. I give the fish as a gift to the family and the next day it usually appears for dinner.

Enroute between Osh and Uzgen were unremitting signs of the elections that will take place on February 27th. We saw a large assembly in one village. They call it “agitation” and it usually seems to involve the politician offering something for free – lunch, a snack, who knows what else. The faces of candidates are pasted everywhere – on car windows, shop fronts, banners hanging over the streets, giant billboards, where stocky, pocked-marked faces rest in front of mountain scenery. I have yet to see the face of a single female candidate.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The surreal post-Soviet world

It’s been quite a weekend. Yesterday I went to the office, wanting to use internet, but we didn’t have any. The minutes had run out. I asked the office manager to check the minutes regularly in the future so we can buy more in advance.

“I asked before and they told me they don’t keep any records. It just runs out when we use it up.” she said. “Do they have records in America or something?”

“Yes, and I’ve also used internet services by providers in other countries. If they didn’t have any records, how would they know when we used it up?”

“We pay a certain amount and then we are charged a tariff, higher in the daytime, less at night.”

“Yes, and so every day they track what we’ve used and subtract it from the amount we paid. They have to have records,” I said. “Talk to them again.”

On my way to aerobics, I looked for an internet café where I could send the document I wanted to send. The first place I passed was a photo shop that also listed internet on its list of services.

“Do you have internet?” I asked the lady at the desk. It didn’t look too promising, not a computer in sight.

She stared at me blankly.

“Internet. In-ter-net,” I repeated.


OK, I could deal with that. The fact that they advertised it and didn’t have it. Not so unusual in the post-Soviet world. A similar scene repeated itself at the next place I stopped.

A while later I saw a big sign for an internet café. They would really have it. When I went in, I saw a bunch of young boys playing computer games.

“How much is internet?” I asked.

“We don’t have internet.”

“Why not?”

“We haven’t turned it on.”

Getting annoyed now, I left.

I went to my aerobics class, thinking that I wasn’t going to be able to find an internet café on a Saturday. But after class, while I was struggling to try to catch a marshrutka home, trying to flag down the number I needed and figuring out where they could stop without the police fining them, I saw another huge sign for an internet café. This was near the central market, near a transportation hub. This one really had to work.

I climbed the stairs and went inside. Again, I didn’t see any computers, just a bunch of booths in what looked like a telephone center.

“Do you have internet?” I asked.


This time I stared blankly. Not only had there been huge signs outside, there was another sign right beside me and the worker. I pointed to the word internet.

“Then why does this say you do?”

“Because we used to have internet!” she said, with a smile that seemed to mock the fact that I hadn’t caught up to the present yet. “But that was in the past.”

I got home, enjoyed my dinner, lit my coal stove, and started to work on the computer. Two times the electricity went out. It had also gone out the night before. When it went out, I worked on battery power and waited for it to return. But when it went out the third time, it didn’t return. My battery ran out and I was left in the dark stillness, with only the flickering of flames from my coal-burning stove gleaning through the cracks in the metal burner.

Fine, I’ll call it an early night and do my work in the morning.

I woke up the next morning and there was still no electricity. And that also meant no plug-in heater, and no hot water for a shower. Shavkat thought they’d been cut off, probably for not paying their electric bill. Nigora insisted that it wasn’t their fault, there was a break in the electric wire and they needed to wait for an electrician. She was doubtful we’d have electricity before nightfall.

I’d made the mistake of skipping a shower the day before. I wanted to get going early and didn’t want to have to get up early enough to shower and then sit inside while my hair dried before leaving. So now it had been two days with no shower and my hair was getting greasy.

I could either stay home in an unheated, unlighted room and hope for a banya that evening. Or if I could go out into public very dirty.

I decided I wanted to eat and I wanted to work on the computer, so I found the headscarf Nigora gave me for New Years – a thick black cloth with purple polka dots. It was a sweet thought, but this wasn’t a gift I’d been planning on using. It was the only scarf I had though, so I imitated the locals and wrapped it around my head, hiding my hair.

Scarves have many uses here. Among the Kyrgyz, it’s a sign of marriage. When a woman is stolen (kidnapped), she’s considered married once the man’s family ties a scarf around her head. It can also be a fashion. And perhaps most importantly, it hides dirty hair, an important function for the many people who are only able to bathe once a week.

I’m getting homesick. I’m dreaming of things like spinach salads and health clubs and frozen yogurt and regular supplies of electricity and water. I’m fantasizing about washing my dishes indoors in a tub of hot water, instead of in a sink on the street where my fingers freeze and the water turns into ice at the base of the sink. I’m thinking how nice it would be if there were spices besides fat and salt, if people sold what their signs advertised, if bus stops were clearly marked, and if money didn’t smell like sheep. I’m feeling ready for a trip home.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Visit to a small southern town

Today I paid a visit to a small village outside of Uzgen, about two hours along a rutted road from Osh. On the way, the signs of campaigning politicians were manifest, preparing for the February 27 elections.

My driver, Malan, looked at all the activity skeptically. He doesn’t plan to vote. “They don’t do anything for anybody,” he said. “Last year a candidate came to my door. I asked what he would do to increase employment and he said he’d find people jobs. I told him, ‘You don’t have that ability and you shouldn’t promise things you can’t deliver. Once you get in office you’ll put a guard outside your door and tell him not to let in people like me because you don’t have time.’ He’ll have a large salary, a private car and won’t need to answer to anyone. He can practice corruption and will get a stomach out to here,” he said, indicating a protruding belly.

I saw posters affixed to car windows and to shop fronts, faces plastered across billboards, banners hanging over the roads, and caravans of Volgas “agitating,” as the locals call campaigning. It seems as though President Akaev’s face, which a month ago was everywhere, has been replaced with the faces these politicians. So far, I’ve only seen male faces, and some of them are quite ugly. They put mountains behind them, or have themselves posing with family and children to show their gentle sides, but their oversized bodies and mean expressions speak for themselves.

The nastiest looking one was a billboard for Mamat Orozbaev. His serious, mean face looked like a gangster looking out over the town.

“He’s corrupt,” Malan said, when I asked about him. “I know him.”

A nicer looking guy was Murat Malabaev. His young face appeared on posters in small roadside villages. While driving in between snow-lined trees like still-life icicles, we went under a green banner reading “Let’s vote for a good guy, Murat Malabaev.” I asked Malan about him.

“He’d be a good deputy,” he said. “I hope he wins. He’s rich and has a lot of containers (the metal boxes that people sell goods out of at the market – they cost several thousand dollars a piece) in KaraSuu. He bought apartments for several people who didn’t have homes. He also gathered pensioners and handed them each 100,000 som ($2,500) so they could do something for themselves. He does something then talks rather than the other way around.”

It seems like in Kyrgyzstan, what makes a good deputy is having spent your own money to help people. In Jalalabat, Oksana took a job helping a politician to campaign. She thought he’d be good because he bought bricks for her Russian Orthodox church. When I asked if he had a chance of winning she said yes. “He’s good looking, with very light skin and even though he’s a millionaire, he’s not stingy. He spends money to help people.” It’s a contrast to America, where what gives one the advantage is having spent one’s own money to promote oneself.

In Uzgen, I met a colleague Ilyas and we took a taxi to the neighboring village of Murzaarik. The sky was one big white sheet and the earth was a mixed bag of snow and mud. People struggled downed slushy streets, trying to avoid the spray from cars. A man on horseback got splashed, as did the people, horses and cows that didn’t get out of the way in time.

Agitation was in full force in Murzaarik as well. Campaigners were providing free lunch to village residents and a significant crowd had formed.

While there, we met a man, Marat, who invited us into his home. “My family is gone at the moment because my brother just stole a wife and they are all at the celebration.”

Marat and his wife make a living by selling vodka and cigarettes through a window in their living room, and renting out time on a billiard table in a clay and hay shack at the back of the house. He was short and thin, with a pointed mustache and the face of a Chinese emperor. He wore a round, brown fur hats, like a soft calabash set on his head. When he removed the hat, he looked younger and more friendly, his black hair plastered against his head.

When Marat went out to get his wife, I looked out the window where they fed people’s habits, watching a man herding cows down the snowy street. The room was unkempt and dirty, smelling of cabbage. Lacking furniture, we sat on a mat on the floor. I wondered what it would be like to spend the days in a room like that, waiting for someone to knock on the window for a shot of vodka or a smoke.

His wife returned, plump and red-cheeked, quiet, but exuding an enthusiasm from the festivities she’d just come from. They brought us back to the billiard table and I watched several young men passing the weekday afternoon around a dimly lighted billiard table.

We took a walk with Marat and I asked him about the wife-stealing. He and Ilyas had both laughed and told me it was “a tradition” when he first told us about it. Of course, it makes me sick, but I tried to keep a straight face so that I could later ask more about it. I wanted to know if his brother had known this girl. And I wanted to know about the logistics. How do they physically steal a woman?

Marat told me that his 30-year-old brother had been married once before, but his wife had left him. That’s a sign that he’s not a good husband, which makes me feel even worse for the unsuspecting bride. He said that he had tried to steal another woman before, but had failed. In order to steal the woman who is now his second wife, he got some friends together to help him. He didn’t know the woman, who lived in another village, but someone had recommended her as a good candidate to steal. She was 30 and had never been married.

He approached her and invited her to a café. When she hesitated, he assured her that he only wanted to get to know her. She got into the car, and that was it. His friends prevented her from getting out and they drove to his home.

He hadn’t told his parents in advance that he was planning to steal someone. They weren’t ready and upon seeing a new daughter-in-law, they had to sell some livestock to cover the expenses.

“I just don’t understand it,” I told Ilyas as we sat together on a bus back to Uzgen. “Why would someone want to take a wife by force? Why would they want a spouse who doesn’t love them?”

Ilyas said he didn’t know. He was the father of a three-year-old daughter and told me that he dated his wife for a year before marrying her. He told the details of the case of one of my employees who stole another. Apparently they had dated at some point in the past, but were no longer dating when she moved to Jalalabat and began working there. When he heard that she’d be coming to the wedding of a colleague in Osh, he planned to steal her.

“He did it himself, without any help,” he said. “He hired a taxi driver and told the driver that he was planning to steal a girl and got his agreement that he wouldn’t interfere. Then he went to the beauty salon where she was getting her hair done for the wedding and took her by force into the taxi.”

“Did she want to marry him?” I asked.

“Not then. But after the wedding she did.” He paused. “Don’t tell her that I told you that. She would be offended if people knew she didn’t want to marry him.”

Now that this girl is back in Osh as the man’s wife, I work with her. She is very young, sweet, intelligent and a good worker. I can see why he would like her as a wife. But I find the method of achieving his goal disgusting. He’s also a good worker and it’s strange to work with them both individually, knowing that he’s a perpetrator of kidnapping and possibly rape and she is the victim who has now arranged her life to make the best of the situation. This week she was sick with stomach problems and I won’t be surprised if I soon hear she’s pregnant. Personally, I think that any staff member who steals another should be fired. But so far, I haven’t been able to implement that.

On the way back to Osh, we passed a woman and child carrying four old tires on a bike. “They are taking those home to burn in the stove,” Malan said. “They probably don’t have any coal. What do you do if you’re cold?”