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.

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