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.

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