Monday, May 30, 2005

Return from France

On my last morning in France, I took a walk. A group of people were already assembled in front of the analysis clinic, even before it opened at 7:30 a.m. When they pulled up the metal gate, the receptionist behind the desk ran around in navy cropped pants and 2-3 inch heeled sandals. Another employee, a woman with long, thick, dark hair, pulled up on a motorcycle, parked it on the sidewalk against a wall, walked in while pulling off her helmet, then returned wearing a white lab coat.

On the beach, three muscular men and a young boy played petanque against the pale morning colors of the sea and sky. They wore small, tight swimsuits and jumped and laughed with excitement.

I flew back on Aeroflot, the flight from Moscow being frightening enough that my colleague Judith and I held hands and a Russian man needed oxygen brought to him.

Bishkek was clean, bright, orderly and green. It’s an attractive city and I was impressed by the number of events, movies and concerts I saw advertised, by the beautiful floral bouquets old woman sold on the street, and by the jars filled with glistening strawberries and cherries for sale.

When our driver picked me up from the Osh airport, I told him I was glad to be home. In fact, while I enjoyed the views in France, even there I felt I would have preferred to have been in Osh. I feel a special attachment to the city and its people and I feel this connection in my heart.

That made it all the worse to receive a phone call several hours later saying that I’ll soon have to move to Bishkek. I’ll be there at least three months and home after that is uncertain. I wanted to cry at the thought of leaving Osh, especially under such short notice, and my family felt the same. Nigora did cry. Not only is it a loss of an expected regular source of income for them, but even more importantly, we’ve grown used to each other and we care about each other. I don’t want to leave them and they don’t want me to go.

I think about all the local places I haven’t seen yet. One of my colleagues just recently ran up the Souleymane mountain, the same day he arrived in Osh. “I’ve learned that in this work I have to see or do things right away if I don’t want to miss the opportunity,” he said. He was right. I put several things off, waiting for my relatives or friends to visit, expecting I’d be here for a while and wanting to share the experience of exploration. I should have just gone and seen what I could while I had the chance. Now I know.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

France deuxieme jour

Today was a warm and tropical day on the southern coast of France. Enough for my skin to turn red after a lunch in the sun. Walking down the street, the sweet perfume of honeysuckles arrested me, as did the fuschia and maroon bougainvillea, that looked like paper flowers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

le Cote d'Azur

I’m in the south of France, in a small town on the Mediterranean, attending a seminar. The village of Golfe Juan is located right on the beach. I can walk 10 minutes from my hotel and be on the shore, walking past the marina packed with yachts and cruisers. A bit further down, I pass the public beach, where bathers of all ages turn crisp in the sun. Many women sunbathed topless and appeared very comfortable in their nudity. This included young woman as well as older women, whose breasts were just one more sagging fold that hung from their chests. Still further was a private beach, where swimmers pay 8 euro to lie on blue and white striped lounge chairs and enjoy a less crowded atmosphere.

I had fun walking down the streets of the small town, smelling the scent of the orange and lemons that hung from trees, from the obscenely sweet and beautiful roses outside a flower shop, the crusty French bread and the soft croissants from the boulangerie, and the homemade sweet delicacies from the chocolate shop. I liked seeing the separate small shops that specialized in meat, in fish, in water sports, or in pharmaceutical goods. I liked the little clinic where people could walk in for laboratory tests, enjoying a free cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate at the door. I liked the beauty of the fruit and vegetable stands – the fresh, firm green beans, the round baby potatoes, the stiff artichokes, the dewy strawberries.

And of course I like where our seminar is being held, on a hillside villa with an aquamarine pool, a view over the ocean, and endless servings of gourmet food unavailable in Kyrgyzstan – from grilled fresh fish, salmon, pork, lamb chops and spiced lamb sausages, to the Caesar salad, couscous, flan, chocolate mousse, and plate of assorted gourmet cheeses.

Tomorrow I’m planning to take a jog along the shoreline. I’m looking forward to the scenery, and to the ability to run around in shorts without attracting curious stares.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


Yesterday I spoke to my colleague in Jalalabat. She lost one of her five employees to a sudden wedding.

“And another one was almost stolen this weekend,” she said.

I asked her about it and she told me that the young woman had been invited to a picnic by a former boyfriend. He’d asked her to marry him and she’d refused. They went very far away, hours from Jalalabat, and she started to get a bad feeling. When she became very worried, she and her friend ran away to the next village, then got a ride home from a local there.

“Good for her,” I said, that she escaped a possible kidnapping.

“Good for me,” my colleague said, thankful not to lose 40% of her staff in a single week.

Today I heard from our driver, Malan, that a prison full of prisoners were set free in Andijan, a town in Uzbekistan about 25 miles from Osh. Malik is usually my first source of local news. Later in the day, I heard more updates from Malan, followed by concern from our office manager, Gulnara, who’d read the news on the internet. Last of all, I received official warnings forwarded from the U.S. embassy in Tashkent and forwardings of articles in CNN and Russian news.

From what I heard, fifteen vehicles of armed men came to the prison, attacked the guards, and freed all the prisoners. They were upset about the imprisonment of 20 businessmen who were imprisoned on charges of extremism. They then demanded the resignation of the Uzbek president.

When I returned home, Nigora said she’d heard people talking in the market. She heard that prisoners had been freed, but didn’t know any details.

In the evening, I sat with Shavkat and Nigora around the outdoor table. They were both concerned.

“Uzbeks aren’t the type of people to start up protests,” Shavkat said. “There must be some provacateurs behind it.”

“The sickness crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan,” Nigora said.

“If there is a revolution in Uzbekistan,” Shavkat said, “it won’t end as quickly or calmly as it did in Kyrgyzstan. There are over 20 million people there. All of Kyrgyzstan is like just Tashkent. And in Kyrgyzstan Akaev decided not to use arms. But I don’t think that Karimov will take such a decision.”

It’s hard to know what the real situation is. On the one hand, Uzbekistan does have a lot of extremists and has a real reason to use strength to control them. On the other hand, I’ve heard that Uzbekistan is very hard on entrepreneurs and it’s possible that there were politically motivated imprisonments.

Nigora and Shavkat agreed that Uzbekistan had a problem with extremists.

“The worst place is Namagan,” Shavkat said, “and it’s only 50 miles from here. After the end of the Soviet Union they wanted to separate and form an Islamic state.”

“They would have been completely isolated from the world,” Nigora said. “They want people to not be able to turn on the TV or the radio, for women to wear full burqas. Even in Soviet times, religion played a very strong role there. My sister lives there and I used to go to visit here. On the street, old men would ask me why I didn’t have on a scarf or a long skirt and they’d hit me with their canes.”

“I would tell them, sorry, sorry, we’re guests and we don’t know your traditions,” Shavkat said.

Nigora said that when she goes there now, she always puts a scarf in her bag and wears a long skirt. “I’m afraid to go alone,” she said. “I always ask Shavkat to come with me.”

An evening rain

It’s 11:40 p.m. and I can hear the rain running off the roof through the drainage pipes and into the garden. Thunder roars in the distance.

Shavkat lies outside on the porch, sleeping on mats as usual. He loves the rain and the sound of thunder. But tonight he’s drunk and I wonder if he hears it. Salima is afraid of storms and has only the children to comfort her at home.

Yesterday, earlier in the evening, we had a short but powerful freak storm. The rain came down in droves, running out of the drainage pipes like waterfalls. Nigora had just planted a flower bulb I’d brought her from the Netherlands and I wondered if it would be drowned.

I like the sound of the rain hitting the ground and falling into the rich soil and the thunder’s rumble. The world is dark and quiet and this reminds me of nature’s life and force. The sound also makes me think of cannon fire and reminds me of the problems in Andijan.

I was out in Osh today and didn’t notice anything different until I tried to buy tomatoes. The same tomatoes I bought yesterday for 30 som a kilo were now 50.

“The border is closed,” the vendors said. Those tomatoes had come from Uzbekistan and there may not be more for a while. So I worry about the entrepreneurs who are dependent on Uzbekistan, either for their supplies (especially of produce) or for their buyers (of other goods). In that way, the locals can be hurt by the events in Uzbekistan.

But besides the price of tomatoes, my day was no different than any other Saturday in Osh. It amazes me that there can be violence and bloodshed only 25 miles away, yet I feel nothing but a 50-cent increase in my expenses and a sadness at the sound of falling rain.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Rural life

I traveled past Nookat today to a village near Kyzyl-Kia. It has a population of 2,500 and according to the local I was with, most of the able adults moved to Russia to work.

“They all went broke on cotton last year and there is no work here, so everyone left.”

Children lined the streets in small clusters, showing that the one thing there is to do in town is reproduce. The former pre-school was closed due to lack of funds and bought out by a mosque.

“It’s bad,” the local said, “because now the kids just stay home.”

Near the school, children climbed a fence and balanced on tree branches, picking berries. Small red tulips burst into color along the roadsides and the fields were full of workers planting tobacco.

“Tobacco is a lot of work for very little money,” our driver, Malan, told me. “There used to be a company, Daimler, that bought a lot of tobacco, but now they buy very little. When the tobacco is ready, they have to pick it either early in the morning or late in the evening, when there is no sun. If they try to pick it when it’s warm and sunny, they can have problems from the fumes emitted from the plants.

“They bring the tobacco home and all the children in the family thread the leaves through a needle, then hang it up to dry. When it’s dry, the children have to roll each piece.”

Malan has sometimes been driving down the middle of the road lately. When I asked him why he preferred the center to choosing a lane, he pointed out the difference between the dashed and the solid white line.

“The solid line is like a wall,” he said. “That one can’t be crossed. But if it’s dashed, then it can be crossed. I can drive down it.”

Interesting how we can take the same rule and see it in different ways. I agree that a dashed line can be crossed, but I expect it to be crossed in the process of choosing a new lane. He views it as freedom to cross it continually, even to drive right down it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A trip to the Netherlands

I’m on my way back from a four-day holiday weekend in Holland. I’m becoming an Aeroflot frequent flier, having flown six international legs in just the last month. An extra five hours has been added to my already 18-hour journey by a change in the flight schedule of the local Kyrgyz airline. They must not have had enough passengers on the 8:45 a.m. flight to Osh I was scheduled for. So they put them all on a 12:35 flight to Jalalabat, which will then continue on to Osh.

That forced me to go into Bishkek to get some sleep. And on a positive note, I found a new hotel on the edge of the city where I got a nice nap in a small but clean bed, a hot shower, a fridge and a TV for $7.50.

It’s been several years since I’ve spent any time in the Netherlands and I really enjoyed my time there. As my boyfriend said, “This is what modernity is supposed to be,” – a clean, comfortable life with attention paid to community health and exercise, public space, social welfare and true individual liberty. Although it’s expensive, I think it would a nice place to live. Even from the plane I was impressed by the neat, orderly layout – from manufacturing plants that looked as clean and sleek as toys, to tall and narrow spinning windmills, castles, greenery, water and public spaces.

We spent the first two nights in Deventer, a Hanseatic League small town with a quaint central area, a wonderful collection of shops, and a surprisingly untouristed feel. Our hotel was a cozy and elegant room located in the back of a café and general store. Decorated with dark old furniture and yellow fabrics, it was bathed in the glow of daylight streaming through the third-story windows. The coffeeshop, where we had our breakfast, and in the hallways, antique cookie boxes and coffee grinders lined the walls. There we tried the local specialty and a popular accompaniment to tea – Deventer cake, a dark bread sweetened with honey.

On our first day we strolled the square, watched Liberation Day celebrations, listened to an old-fashioned musical box, walked along the canal, and took take-out Chinese back to our room.

The following day was my favorite of the trip. We took a train to the nearby town of Apledoorn, rented bicycles, and biked to the Hoge Veluwe National Park. It is the largest national park in the Netherlands. In 1914 it was purchased by Anton and Helene Kroller-Muller, a German couple. In 1930 it was given to the state. Racks of free white bicycles that can be used to ride through the premises form a unique aspect of the park.

It lacked the stunning scenery of some of the world’s famous national parks. But it made up for that by the fun of cycling along the paths and through different landscapes, the quaintness of the white bicycles we passed, and the marvelous Kroller-Muller museum, which opened in 1938 to show Helene’s art collection. It was a spectacular collection, including a sculpture garden and an ensemble of Van Gogh’s so powerful that I’ve never before been so struck as to the difference between a reproduction and the real thing. The colors and textures powerful enough to strike me to the core.

We biked all the way across the park, through forests, plains and best of all – an area of desert-like sand dunes that appeared suddenly at the edge of the forest. We then cycled to the town of Arnhem, passing homes, public parks, bicycles, Pannekoeken pancake cafes, and remarkably few stores along the way.

I saw a greater variety of bicycles than I’d ever seen before – singles, doubles, satchels across the back, baskets on the front, a child seat in the rear, a baby seat in front (protected by a windshield), carriages pulled behind, and even what I called a wheelbarrow bike, with a large, open square at the front of the bike, large enough to carry a few seatbelted children, a stroller, a few bunches of fresh roses, and even the groceries. I loved the well-marked bike routes, the bike lane incorporated into every road, the tiny average size of cars, and t he clear priority people put on fuel conversation, public transportation and using bikes and feet as a major mode of transportation, even when there are kids. We saw numerous families, all biking together, the kids on one of the various seats, or from a young age, moving quickly on their own bike.

We spent the next two days in the more touristed area just west of Amsterdam, the home of the infamous tulip fields. During the first day, we wanted through the streets of Haarlem, a 17th century town. We visited the large, old church, with one of the biggest organs in the world, and drank beer in a personable pub, where children drank sodas while their parents imbibed beer and an old man played live jazz on the piano.

The next day we rented bicycles once again and bicycled to the famous Keukenhof Garden, a wonderful 69-acre park full of colorful tulips and other spring flowers born from over six million bulbs planted each autumn. We arrived near the end of the season, which goes until May 20th. So the nearby fields, which a month ago would have been rainbow beams of color, were now largely empty. But we could imagine the scenery in the fields by seeing the specially planted tulips in the park.

The weather was very variable. It was generally chilly and windy, but the sun shone frequently. While we were at the park, we were hit by a heavy hail storm. Five minutes later, the sun had returned. We were just grateful that the storm came while we were within reach of shelter, instead of out in the countryside on our bikes.

What really surprised me was that despite the distances we traveled by bike, we passed very few stores or other commercial outlets. Unlike in America, where there seems to be a Seven Eleven on every corner, in Holland we had to travel quite a ways to find a gas station where we could buy a drink. While I like the convenience of being able to buy what I need, I also appreciated the long stretches of greenery and residential areas, and the lack of gaudy, cheap stores selling junk food.

Before leaving Holland, I stocked up on cheese and flowers, and hoped I’d be able to return someday to explore more of the bicycle paths. One disadvantage of traveling in Europe (versus in developing countries) is that everything is so organized and navigable that it’s hard to meet locals. It is often the struggles in travel that bring me into contact with the local residents. Since we had no difficulties in Holland, we had a nice time, but didn’t have a real conversation with anyone there. I’d like to return someday to see some more of the country, and to learn more about the people who populate it, and who promote the way of life I find so attractive.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Holiday number two

Today is Constitution Day in Kyrgyzstan, the second of three holidays in the first week of May. But the real focus is on Victory Day, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II (here called the Great Patriotic War) which will take place on Monday.

Yesterday I saw two trucks full of soldiers dismounting near the central square.

“Oh no. What’s happening now?” I asked our driver Malik, fearing new unrest.

“They are preparing for the Victory Day parade,” he said.

Many surviving veterans have been invited to Moscow and the red carpet seems to be rolled out for them during the whole journey. On my flight yesterday from Osh to Bishkek, airport staff greeted, seated and catered to two old Kyrgyz men in gold-embroidered kalpaks. I only realized at the end of the flight that they were probably veterans going to Moscow.

On my flight from Bishkek to Moscow, several old men (mostly ethnic Russians) wore jackets filled with dangling metal Soveit pins. As we boarded, they were pulled aside to be reseated in business class.

“I guess we’re flying separately,” one old man joked as a second was pulled out of line.

The intercom at the Moscow Sheremetyevo airport announced that veterans could get free tickets for a bus ride into town.

It’s moving to see these survivors and imagine the horrors they must have been exposed to at an early age. Going thorugh the war should have been enough sacrifice for one lifetime. But some of them must also have been among those sent into Stalinist labor camps upon their return, or must have lost friends or family in Stalin’s purges. I wonder what they think that where their country and people have come since ten and I hope they feel the horror they deserve for their sacrifices.

I’m now on my way to Holland, to meet my boyfriend for the holiday weekend. It was difficult getting the one work day off of work and I’m very glad to be on my way.

I spent yesterday evening with Gulnara and her family. In honor of my visit they prepared manti, steamed dumpling filled with potatoes, greens and fat. Gulnara baked a fresh loaf of bread, as she does every day, and made a salad from tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers. When her sister-in-law, a 10th grade student, opened the mayonnaise to put on the salad, she rubbed off a contest piece and found that she’d won an iron.

Her brother-in-law Ruslan grilled me on history, especially about the U.S. role in World War II and seemed to gloat in my poor knowledge. Though they were all Kyrgyz, none of them seemed to particularly like the south, taking pride in the fact that Bishkek is “more European” and has “more ethnic Russians.” Given the mass exodus of Russians that took place after the revolution, I’m not sure how much longer that will last. “It’s kind of life how it was in America, when there was a war between the north and the south,” Ruslan said. “It could be the same way here.”

It doesn’t help that there is a clear north-south division between the two primary presidential candidates. Bakiyev, the acting President, is from the southern city of Jalalabat and was put in power by protestors from the south. Kulov, an authoritarian figure, has a Russian wife and reputedly has trouble speaking Kyrgyz.

Gulnara sat me on the bed she shares with her husband Shakir and showed me the pregnancy book they read together in the evenings. She told me that she’s found an obstretrician she likes and the hospital where she’ll give birth (maternity ward #4). In Kyrgyzstan, women don’t receive any painkillers unless there is a serious problem.

“They told me that if I got painkillers then I wouldn’t feel anything. And if something happened like the baby pressed against the kidneys, I wouldn’t feel it and they could explode.”

She recently graduated from a local MBA program and her graduation ceremony was on the day of the revolution in Bishkek. I asked if she had any photos.

“Not really. I’m waiting to get some from friends. We were all dressed in our caps and gowns and we planned to spend the whole day together, to go out to a café. But the administration told us that people were gathered and that they’d just taken over the White House. So we needed to get home.”

I’m now seated on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Amsterdam. The difference in flights heading west versus east is astonishing. I have a whole row to myself, the seats are spacious and skinny, the cabin is cool and bright and the flight staff nicely attired. The flights to Bishkek have old, crummy seats, in which my knees press into the seat in front of me, the air is heavy and dark and the service poor in the best Russian tradition.

I’m entering a part of the world with higher standards, where fewer people complain about the lack of work and absence of a future for their children.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A Summer Day Off in May

Today was a day off of work, since yesterday, a Sunday, was a national holiday, something like Labor Day. The first week of May is the most chock-full period of holidays in the year. Both Thursday and next Monday are also holidays.

It’s definitely summertime now and I put away all my winter clothes today. The temperature is in the 80s and 90s, all of the trees have bloomed, and outdoor cafes have sprouted up overnight.

I spent much of the day reading and writing. When I got sick of being in my room, I walked into town and found a spot at an outdoor café table, where I could enjoy the fresh air.

The place where we had our picnic yesterday was beautiful. It was at the end of a remote mountain valley, about two hours from Osh along rough, dirt roads. The mountains were covered with daffodil and crocus stalks. I could imagine the land exploding into color next month. Above us rose white, snowy peaks and a clear river ran white over rocks and through the valley.

We had enough time to enjoy an outdoor picnic with roasted lamb shashlik. Almost as soon as we finished eating, it started to rain and then to hail, little white balls falling from the sky and bouncing up from the ground. A geologist with us said that the mountains caused the rain, by forcing the air up where it was cool.

There were a couple of old rusted wagons in the national park and we were the only visitors that day. One had a large table where we could all gather. Another had eight narrow bunkbeds, for visitors who want to spend the night. There was also a traditional wooden Russian banya, where I was able to sweat while looking out the small window at the falling rain. It was amazing to open the door of the banya when exiting and walk out into a pristine mountain landscape.

While we weren’t able to do much hiking or outdoor activities, it was great to get some fresh air and enjoy the beautiful Kyrgyz mountain scenery. Now that I know where this place is, I’m going to try to organize a weekend trip for some of our staff members. Kyrgyzstan has so much beautiful scenery to offer, but since the roads are bad and many of the nicest sights are remote, it can be hard (or at least expensive) to travel alone. My goal is to plan a couple of group trips this summer.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

A New Life Together

Yesterday I went to my second Kyrgyz wedding, a marriage between two of our employees. It was unusual in several regards – the wife is a few years older, a few inches taller, and held a higher-ranking job than the husband. And there were only eleven people in attendance at the wedding.

The invitation said the celebration would begin at 1 p.m. and urged people not to be late. I went with Gulnara, our office manager, and we arrived around 1:30, afraid we were late and would cause problems. Instead, we were the first people there.

About an hour later, the wedding car pulled up. The bride, Baktigul, had her hair specially done and wore a beautiful white dress and veil. The groom, Kanat, also looked very nice in his black suit. They were accompanied by a few friends and a videographer and a photographer, both Kanat’s friends.

We went into the bar of Osh plaza, where a banquet table had been set for 20. There were four spaces at the head for the bride, groom and witnesses. A second table was perpendicular, forming a T. I kept waiting for more people to show up, but it never happened. When I asked Baktigul where her parents were she said, “They are probably doing errands.” What kind of parents would be doing errands on their daughter’s wedding day, I wondered.

The celebration wasn’t a lot of fun. I had to sit next to a woman who my predecessor fired, the videographer was drunk and kept leaning in for close-ups of things like the salt shaker or the Coke bottle, and the food wasn’t very good. It was clear they were on a tight budget. The pears, oranges and bananas were bruised, the candy baskets were full of cheap, hard candies instead of the usual chocolates, and there was little cheese or sausage.

The most popular time of year for weddings in Kyrgyzstan is between August and November, when the harvests come in, fruits and vegetables are abundant, and cattle have become fattened after a summer in the pastures. The cost of a wedding is significantly lower at that time.

People tend to get married in the spring, when everything is expensive, only if there is a specific reason. Another employee got married when I was in Moscow. He had planned to marry in August. But the parent’s of his fiancée said that if he wanted to marry her, he had to do it immediately. Otherwise they’d give her to someone else.

Baktigul told me that she planned a larger wedding in Kyzyl-Kia, where her new husband comes from. But his grandfather died recently. And according to tradition, it’s not allowed to hold celebrations within a year of the death of a close family member. I found that hard to understand. If his grandfather loved Kanat, would he really want him to postpone his happiness for a year because of his passing? Wouldn’t he rather his offspring find joy in life while they can?

I’d heard rumors several weeks ago that these two were living together, “a civil marriage.” As for why they needed to marry so quickly, and without their families, I don’t understand. I thought maybe Baktigul was pregnant, but she wasn’t visibly so. Nigora thought maybe Kanat stole Baktigul. But I didn’t think so, especially since Baktigul was his supervisor. Then Nigora thought maybe they didn’t have their parents’ permission to marry. Or maybe Baktigul, who at 27 already had reduced chances of finding a spouse, didn’t want to risk letting this opportunity go by.

But whatever the reason, the most important thing is that they are happy together. And they did seem to be happy with each other, smiling knowingly at each other and touching each other in an easy, familiar manner while dancing. It was nice to see a couple that seemed to be attracted to each other and both wanted to get married. In the last wedding I went to, the wife was convinced to marry due to pressure from her parents and the practical arguments that this man would be a supportive and good spouse.

Salima, another employee, sat next to me. She is an Uzbek, who tend to be more traditional and marry their daughters earlier than the Kyrgyz. At 23, she’s already pretty old for an Uzbek. She was supposed to get married this fall to a man she didn’t know or like. She was happy when he went off to Russia. She told me that she now plans to marry another man who her parents have selected. I asked if she’d met him and she said yes, “we’ve started talking.”

She doesn’t seem excited about this man either, but likes him better than the first. He speaks several languages and has been working for Lukoil in Russia. He wants to go back to Russia once more before the wedding and she thinks there is a chance he won’t return.

“If he can find a job with a normal salary he’ll stay here,” she said. “Otherwise he’ll return to Russia.”

If the wedding does happen, she said she’d invite me, promising me that it would be a big, loud, and noisy affair, in the Uzbek tradition.

While we were waiting for the wedding party to arrive, I sat at an outdoor table with Gulnara. She is a 25-year-old Kyrgyz from a village just outside Osh. She also is facing intense pressure from her family to marry, and has so far resisted it.

She told me that just this week she took a taxi while working and the driver asked her to dinner. She refused and he then threatened to steal her. Taxi drivers almost always ask me about my marital status, and they occasionally joke about stealing. But as a foreigner I can take it as a joke. I know it is extremely unlikely that they would try to steal a tall American. But for Gulnara, the threat is real. Someone could actually kidnap her and take her home as his bride.

“What would you do if I were to steal you right now?” he asked her.

“I’d burn down your house and your car,” she told him.

He was shocked.

“Whether someone steals a woman depends on their reaction,” Gulnara told me. “When I told him I’d burn his house, he could tell I was serious. But if someone laughs and seems unsure, then they could steal her.

“In the past, when I was a first and second-year university student, I used to really worry about getting stolen. Even though my parents and grandmother didn’t want me to be stolen, I knew that they’d be subjected to a lot of pressure to agree to the marriage and I think things would have been difficult for me. Also, at that time, I would have had a hard time going against my parents.

“Now I feel more independent of my parents. If I were to be stolen, I would definitely say no and leave. But even if I could leave, I think it would still be a traumatic experience.”

Of course I agreed with her. It would be traumatic for anyone to be kidnapped, to lose their freedom of movement and choice, to be trapped in an environment where they don’t want to be. And the fact that Kyrgyz women have to think seriously and frequently about what they would do if they were kidnapped is really sad.

In other news, the family dog Max is back home for good now, after navigating the streets back home four times. I’m just going to have to get used to him.

The weather is warm – in the 80s and 90s – and the city is beautiful. Green trees line the streets, flowers of future fruits have sprouted, and the purple flowers are sprinkled around the city. Fresh strawberries and cherries from Uzbekistan have appeared in the market and people seem happier during the long, sunny days. Today my family is taking me out to the mountains for a picnic. I can’t wait!