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.”

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