Sunday, March 13, 2005

A trip to the city

I just spent the past few days in Bishkek, my first trip to the capital in about three months. Wow, it really felt like a cosmopolitan mecca, and I felt like a bit of a country bumpkin seeing the big lights. I took in the sights and sounds as if I was entering a new world. When we drove from the airport to the city center, I was struck by the smooth road and the rarified colors of the fields, trees and snow-capped mountains under a giant, overpowering sky.

Downtown, I was impressed by what seemed like such orderly traffic. It was only about seven months ago that I first moved to Bishkek and found the traffic frightening. Either it has improved since then, or it’s just so wonderful compared to Osh that now it seems incredibly orderly and civilized. Cars actually stop at lights and I can cross the street without fear. There are lots of shiny, new-looking cars, and similar numbers of shiny, new shops, cafes, and service centers.

I enjoyed all kinds of little treats – from having a TV, to white toilet paper, to a shower with hot water and a toilet both connected to my room. No need for trips outside until I actually wanted to go outside.

We had dinner at the Cowboy Café, where we ate steaks, salads and pizzas and drank milkshakes and cocktails at Western prices, served by waiters in cowboy hats who did line dances throughout the evening.

While the garbage bins are still overflowing, I saw a rat, and I unfortunately saw people walk by a dead man on the street, I saw many more internet cafes. It’s really neat to be in a place where development in a three month period is so clearly seen. And it feels good to know that I’m playing a role in that development, however small it may be.

I was able to visit my friend Zhenya and catch up with her. Her son Algubek was outside rollerblading with the little girl who lives across the hallway. Zhenya recently finished her degree and she got a job as a salesperson at the Dordoi market, a giant wholesale market, where many of the consumer goods sold at markets throughout the country originate.

She stands in an iron container and sells jeans from 8:30 until 3, receiving 100 som ($2.50 per day). She was unhappy about the pay, because after paying 20 som for transportation and 10 for tea and a snack, she only cleared 70 som ($1.75) a day.

She’s currently in a trial period and is hoping that once that ends, the owner will start giving her 10 som per pair of jeans she sells. If he did, she estimates she could earn 200 to 300 som a day, which she’d be satisfied with.

“It’s so cold there,” she complained. I’m surrounded by iron on all sides, the ground is cold, and no sunshine comes through. So I have to wear several layers of clothes. I used to go to the market that way, but it was shameful to get on the marshrutka and have everyone look at me, as though wondering if I’d just come from the far north. So I started leaving my clothes in the container.”

She said that the owner of the container has four others as well, currently valued at about $35,000 a piece. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve noticed a tendency among especially wealthy and successful merchants to pay their workers very low wages, often between 700 and 1500 som a month (about $17-33). Up to 2000 or 2500 is about the maximum they pay. Salaries end up being an extremely small portion of their expenses and it seems that for many of them, paying their workers more would be an almost inconsequential expense. But for some reason, they don’t seem to feel the obligation to do so.

Runoff elections were held today, with about two thirds of the candidates from the primary elections having to run again, not having received over 50% of the vote. The President’s daughter, Bermet Akayeva, was among those going back to the polls. Despite the fact that the government prevented a prominent opposition leader, Roza Ozumbaeva, from running against her, she still didn’t get 50% of the vote. However, in a different region, the President’s son did win a seat in the first round. Bermet’s campaign posters were posted all over Bishkek. She is young, fresh-faced, dressed in a black suit coat and a white blouse, and looks like someone I could have had as a classmate in graduate school. It’s unfortunate to think of her as part of the machinations of power that are seen as corrupt.

I returned to Osh on a very frightening Air Kyrgyzstan flight. We boarded by climbing into the belly of the plane. When we landed, we hit the ground at an angle and I could have sworn we would roll. When my local colleague said he no longer wanted to fly anymore after that, wanting to be like David Beckham, at least I knew my fear wasn’t an overreaction. I think I’m going to try to stick with the better airline from now on, even though the schedules won’t offer as much choice.

It was raining in both Bishkek and Osh today. That means that greenery should soon appear, welcoming in spring with full force.

Shavkat is out of town. He left for a ten-day “vacation” in the mountains.

“He’s tired of us,” Nigora said.

I asked if she ever took a vacation.

“Not more than two days,” she said. Without me, everything here goes to chaos. No one can find a fork, no one can eat. Sometimes I’ve gone away, but after two days, Shavkat always comes and gets me, telling me I have to come back because they can’t manage without me.”

I asked if it was quiet without him.

“No, just the opposite,” she said. “He sometimes scolds the children to be quiet. But when he’s not here, I let them do what they what. So for them it’s also like a vacation.” She laughed.

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