Monday, July 25, 2005

The sights in Osh

After just under a week’s absence from Osh, the beauty and unusualness of life here struck me anew again.

While paused at a busy intersection, I saw a man on a horse cross the road, pulling his wife and children behind him in a low metal wheeled cart. A bit further down, a car packed with honeydew melons moved down a busy street. Somehow, one of the car doors opened and several melons tumbled out. Passing traffic cracked open and squished the orange-yellow rinds. A group of taxi drivers across the street stood with open mouths and laughed loudly.

I ate lunch at one of the Kyrgyz cafes that line Kyrgyzstan street. All of them have outdoor tables, where people eat their meals and drink tea throughout the day and well into the night. While sitting there, I watched two young boys – dirty and disheveled, approach the cafĂ©’s washstand. A mirror was attached to the washstand. As they ran their hands through the running water, they looked intently in the mirror. They washed their faces, then wet their hair and attempted to style it. One boy reached over and helped the other, trying to form spikes above his forehead. I photographed them and showed them the digital image on the screen. They looked in surprise, then in laughter, before heading down the sidewalk together.

A bit later, two Tartar men sat down with me at my table. The man across from me was dark-skinned, with glazed eyes, deep wrinkles and a jaw that seemed to be partially locked, as if from a stroke. The second was light-skinned with clear blue eyes. Both wore round Muslim caps.

The blue-eyed man introduced himself as Farhod. He said he came to Osh from Russia in 1946, when he was in the first grade. His parents moved here after the war.

“It’s warm here, it had bread, and the people aren’t bad,” he said. “Because it’s a Muslim society, there aren’t many drunks or hooligans.”

But life for him, like most people his age, was better in Soviet times. “The minimum wage was 80 rubles. Everything was cheap then. A bag of flour cost 13 rubles, sausage 20, the best meat 80. Now we don’t see much meat.”

He talked about how the laws were strict and more fair than today. “Thieves were caught. People were afraid to build huge houses or to have two or three cars. But now I see these three-story houses being built and I know there is only one place they could have gotten the money – drugs.”

Today he and his friend live on pensions of 1000 som ($25) per month. “The minimum needed to live is 1800,” he said. “We believe in God and just hope for the best. One needs to believe in God.”

He poured another cup of tea for his vision-impaired friend and spilled it in his lap.

“I’m sorry,” he said, as he tried to wipe it up. His voice and actions showed his great regard and concern for his friend. Before I left, I ordered two more pots of tea for the two friends, so they could spend some more time shooting the breeze together.

Melons – watermelon and honeydew – line the roadsides in giant piles. New flowers have grown in Nigora’s garden. I notice progress in the construction of new buildings. And it’s still as hot as ever.

Today is the 25th anniversary of Vladimir Vwisotsky’s death, a famous Russian singer and actor. Farhod told me that a TV program this evening would show how he really died. I watched and if it’s true, it seems he died of a drug overdose. Farhod told me that it was prohibited to sing his songs in Soviet times but that he heard people in Osh singing them.

My family is doing well. Nigora took a trip to Andijon, Uzbekistan, the site of the recent uprising and massacre. She said that she saw the building where it all happened, but didn’t have time to ask people about it. She had gone to the market to look at dishes, just for the heck of it. She came back with a set of dishes that she liked and have been sitting on our porch since I arrived home.

“Some of my neighbors saw them and asked me to sell the dishes to them,” she said. I encouraged her. Perhaps this could be a new business opportunity for her. She is eager to work, but Shavkat is hesitant to invest in a private business. He is averse to investment risk and unfortunately, the family has lost out on a lot of potential due to his unwillingness to let them start something themselves.

Today she went to the market to see how much such dishes sold for. “I realized that if I sell them to my neighbors, a profit will remain,” she said. “I didn’t want to sell them right away because I didn’t know how much they sold for.” Maybe she’ll sell them and maybe she’ll return to Uzbekistan for another set. Maybe she’s beginning a new business stealthily, with a small investment, before Shavkat can notice what she is developing.

Habib didn’t get into the university as a budget (scholarship) student. He’ll have to pay a contract to enter and will find out by the end of the month whether he gets into the university he wants. He’s hoping to study finance and credit with his brother, in the business and management faculty. Students graduating from high school take a test and on the results of that, they are able to enter the university. In theory, those with the highest scores should get the scholarship spots and the first places in the university. But one of their neighbors, who Habib and his mother think is an idiot and has a fraction of Habib’s 124 score (124 is considered average) was accepted long ago with a scholarship. His parents just paid the university administration enough to make sure that he got it.

Nigora and Shavkat are committed to avoiding bribes and hope that Habib will get in without any additional payments, though they will have to pay 7,000 som ($175) annually for his contract.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Aborted flight

I boarded an Abudujuru flight this evening with my colleague Judith, trying to return from Bishkek to Osh.

“I have a feeling this is going to be a bad flight,” Judith said, as we began to crawl up the rickety steps into the small plane’s belly. The sky was cloudy and drizzling rain.

I always have the feeling that the flight will be bad on Abudujuru and I usually try to avoid it in favor of the slightly better Altyn Air. At least it’s a little lighter and airier on the inside and has steps on the side of the plane.

We squeezed into our seats on the packed plane, tightened our seatbelts, and took off. We had a couple of quick drops and some shaking, but not too much more than usual. We did seem to take some turns though.

Just as I was pointing out to Judith that we were traveling quite low, just above the wheat fields, I heard the thunk of dropping wheels. We were landing, but where?

“Maybe this is Jalalabat,” I said.

“No, we haven’t crossed the mountains yet. Maybe it’s Uzbekistan.”

“That can’t be. Maybe Talas?” I laughed at the idea that we were landing somewhere and had no idea where. I asked the Kyrgyz woman next to me.

“I suppose it’s Osh,” she said. We looked at our watches. No, we hadn’t been in the air long enough.

As we came close to landing, I saw the grey US Air Force planes, solid dark grey cylinders.

“This is Bishkek,” I said. We had returned, but the crew hadn’t bothered to tell us anything.

They got us off the plane, telling us that the weather was bad and we’d have to wait for it to improve.

“Couldn’t you tell what the weather would be like before we took off?” Judith asked the flight attendant. Her Kyrgyz boyfriend was waiting for her at the Osh airport and had traveled a few hours to get there.

Once we got into the airport another passenger announced to Judith, “God saved us.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The windshield in the cockpit was broken. That was why we turned around. They are out there trying to fix it now.”

We turned to the empty waiting lounge. There, a sign banned smoking and threatened a 100 som ($2.50) fine. Just across from it, an airport employee, dressed in black dress pants and a white shirt, casually enjoyed his cigarette.

For the past several days, I was at a seminar on Issyk-Kul, the famous lake and tourist attraction in Kyrgyzstan. It was a surprising modern tourist complex – a gated area with identical cottages and paved sidewalks that reminded me of a trailer park or the apartment complex I lived in during graduate school. The $70 doubles included hot showers and 3 meals a day.

Piers extended out from the beach to the brilliantly blue water. It was cold upon first jumping in, but soon became comfortable. The water is so clear that even far from the shore, the bottom is still visible. Looking at land from the water, or from the piers, large mountains loomed over the resort, misty clouds dancing among them, light disbursing in particle streams, tying the land to the sky. The lake itself extended to the horizon, a giant sapphire, until it reached the hazy snow-capped mountains dancing with white clouds in the distance.

Most of the time was spent working, but we were able to spend a few hours on a boat, enjoying a picnic lunch and sunbathing as we traversed the shore. We docked at the Aurora, the most exclusive resort in Soviet times, and still one of the best sand beaches. There are very few boats on the lake, but the nascent tourist industry has introduced the first few jet-skis, banana boats and even a parasailer.

On the way out of town, we passed countless tiny roadside stalls, selling sweet and sour cherries, buckets of apricots and smoked fish. Muslim cemeteries looked like conglomerations of little fiefdoms – with each grave resembling a castle or mosque. For much of the way, the lake glimmered as a blue line alongside us. When we entered the mountain pass, where mountain rose straight up on either side of us, we began to follow rushing white-turquoise river waters. Despite rain in the mountain area, we passed two whitewater rafting boats preparing to take a trip. I’m going to look into the possibility of doing something similar next month.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

preparation for guests and a family friend loses his mind

Tomorrow Nigora is having 13 of her female neighbors over for lunch. They meet once a month and alternate hosting the luncheon. It comes to her home once a year and is a big event. She’s been planning it for weeks and I stayed in town this weekend just to be here for the guests. In her free time, she makes lists of food and costs, puts new pillowcases on pillows, and hangs new white lace curtains around the patio where the guests will gather. Today she spent much of the day killing bees. “Bees might be the only problem we’ll have,” she said. “We’re used to it and just sit here quietly. But if the bees come, the women are all going to go home.”

“Let your neighbors go home early,” Habib said in a typical sarcastic teenager voice and Nigora laughed.

Lutfulo spent two evenings whitewashing all the walls – from the patio to the outdoor kitchen to the interior of the banya and the bathroom.

Shavkat and Faruh had been out of town for the past four days. Shavkat was working as a driver for two Swiss tourists and Faruh was allowed to go along. The guide was Maxim, the aging Russian who we used as a guide last fall.

This afternoon, Nigora called me out of my room. “Shavkat needs some help translating,” she said. I went out onto the porch and saw Shavkat sitting on a stool, two tall, bearded men standing nearby.

“I don’t understand what they are saying,” Shavkat said. “Could you help translate?”

“We are really displeased with our trip,” one of the men said. “We are preparing to climb Peak Lenin (one of the world’s tallest peaks) and wanted to prepare by hiking several high passes. This is what we were promised, but we didn’t get this. The guide didn’t do any guiding at all. Yesterday we went hiking by ourselves. The only good day of trekking we had, the day before yesterday, was done by the driver (Shavkat). We’re happy with the driver. If it hadn’t been for him and his son, the trip would have been a nightmare. The guide showed up drunk on the first day and refused to take us on any long hikes. We originally agreed to a price of $280, but we don’t want to pay that now. We don’t want to pay for yesterday. We gave the guide $160 in the beginning and are willing to pay $80 more.”

I translated and Shavkat accepted. “Yes, Maxim was sick,” he said.

He drove the tourists back to their hotel and I sat at the table with Faruh and Nigora. Faruh began to tell us of their experiences. He said that Maxim had gone crazy. “He talked nonstop all night, so none of us could sleep. He said things like “You won’t get me alive!” And he kept saying that he saw a man. He would point at the air and ask us why we didn’t see him. One night, one of the tourists got up around midnight to go to the bathroom and Maxim grabbed him, asking where he was going. On the drive back, he kept talking and moving his hands nonstop. He yelled at us, asking who turned on the radio. But there is no radio in the car.”

Nigora said that when they arrived home, the tourists, Shavkat and Faruh all calmly got out of the car. Maxim came out yelling, then took off barefoot down the street. “They were already used to it,” Faruh said, referring to the tourists. I was surprised they only complained about the lack of high altitude treks. They had a maniac as a guide.

Shavkat tried to find Maxim on his way home, but didn’t have any luck. He returned and while he was in the shower, Maxim called.

“He’ll be here in a minute,” Nigora said. “He’s in the shower.”

“I’ll come over,” Maxim said and hung up. No one wanted Maxim to come over, so Shavkat went out in the car to try to meet him on the way. Somehow he missed him and Maxim came to the door. Nigora invited him in and to sit on the porch.

“Would you like some watermelon?” she asked in a friendly voice. He refused.

He talked nonstop from the moment he entered the premises. “I want to apologize to you J and to you Nigora, but I’m not going to apologize to those goats (the tourists). They said they were foreigners, but they were whispering to each other all night and they were whispering in Russian. They were really Russians, but wouldn’t admit it. I knew they were going to run away and not pay. All night they were planning against me, then the next day, they acted normal, like nothing had happened. But I knew who they were.”

We all looked at him, trying to keep straight faces, trying to hide our joint shock and laughter at the absurd. I looked at his thin legs, clothed in jeans, his grey beard, and his stiff jaw, like a nutcracker, filled with golden teeth. He was really out of his mind. I felt sorry for him, and even sorrier for the tourists. Not only did they have a crazy guide, but the guide thought the tourists were spies or evil beings. In that sense, they were really in danger.

He continued. “In the car on the way back, we were talking about music, about Deep Purple. And they started saying High Purple and Low Purple and Quiet Purple. Purple, purple, purple. They repeated the word nonstop, for a whole hour. I couldn’t stand it. Those jerks. I don’t ever want to see them again. I couldn’t even sit at the same table with them.”

Much to my dismay, he then turned his attention to me. “And I apologize to you J. You can’t help it that you grew up in America. When you were yelling at me and running after me..”

“J wasn’t there. She didn’t hear anything,” Nigora said.

“You know, I saw a photo from America where 40 people were in the mountains and all of them were smiling. How is that possible? Forty people can’t be happy at once. One person is happy, the other has a hanging face. But in America they are taught to present themselves that way, even if they aren’t happy. Everyone is supposed to smile and look OK. And I realize, J, that you have many good qualities and you are a good person. That is why I respect you and will respect you to my death. I realize that you can’t help it that you were brought up in a culture that taught you to be that way.”

At that point, I was wondering how to get out of there. I have to admit I was curious to see Maxim after what I’d heard. And now I saw it was true.

“He’s speaking in stream of consciousness,” Nigora whispered. Faruh had to turn his back to Maxim and drink his soda to hide his smile at the things Maxim was making up, especially after he said Faruh was a witness to the terrible things the tourists were doing.

Shavkat led Maxim to the car. Maxim returned, popping his head through the porch. “Again, I’m sorry,” he said. “But what would you do if someone kept saying purple nonstop for 15 minutes?”

We nodded in agreement and let Shavkat lead him away, back to his home where his brother and partner in business also has a drinking problem.

Nigora and Shavkat tried to make excuses for him. “He’s never been like this before,” “It’s because he drinks too much, it’s messed up his brain,” “He’ll come to himself in a few days,” “It’s due the stress of his wife leaving him and not letting his son even see him,” etc.

When Shavkat returned home, he slept the entire day. “He didn’t get any sleep for three nights,” Nigora said. “He was trying to calm Maxim down. And he was afraid that Maxim could hurt the tourists. So he sat up all night to make sure that nothing happened.”

It was a good thing that the tourists didn’t know Russian. They probably didn’t know that Maxim saw the tourists themselves as his tormentors.

Nigora asked Shavkat and Faruh about what Maxim said. “They said the tourists didn’t speak a word of Russian,” she said. And about the purple. “The tourists sat silent in the car the entire four-hour ride home.”

Maxim needs an alcohol recovery center and he needs psychiatric help. But it’s unlikely he’ll get quality help in either area. He’s an aging Russian alone in a Kyrgyz society. The world he always knew has been destroyed. Now he’s forming his own universe.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The election passes quietly

Yesterday was election day and all was quiet. Though Nigora says the real results will come in a week, “once the winner has been announced and those who didn’t win try to rally their people and contest the results.”

It seems unlikely to me that there will be a real contestation though. I still haven’t met anyone who voted for somebody other than Bakiev – including Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Russians.

I accompanied Nigora to the polls, held in the school near our home. Brightly colored flags were draped over the entrance to the peeling school. The voters at that time were mostly women, draped in long Uzbek dresses and headscarves, crowded together at the entrance. Several men relaxed on Uzbek tables out front, and small stands were set up to sell candy and fruit juice, and Shoro, the popular summer drink sold in glasses that tastes like sour sand.

Kyrgyz national opera music emerged from loudspeakers, giving the area a pleasant and festive atmosphere. Nigora cast her vote and emerged from the exit. “In any case, I don’t expect to see big changes,” Nigora said, as we walked down the hill toward the government administration building. She and Faruh had agreed to accompany me to a lake on the city outskirts.

“We’ll still live the same. The Kyrgyz have a strong clan system and they give their relatives the green light to do what they want and they bring them into office around them. Maybe for the first five years it will be OK, but within 10 to 15 years, it will be just like Akaev. Alaev also started out as a good person. We need to get a new person in after five years. A new person always tries hard, while people who have been in office too long just sit.”

She thinks that someone from outside the Kyrgyz clan system would be better, but she and Shavkat agree that an Uzbek could never be President. “If that happened, the Kyrgyz would say, this is Kyrgyzstan. We need a Kyrgyz President,” Shavkat said.

I asked her why she chose Bakiev from the six candidates.

“Among the candidates offered, I think he’s the best,” she said. “I’m sure there are many better than him, but they didn’t place themselves as candidates. When I read his goals in the newspaper, I liked what he had to say. And I like that he’s not on TV all the time, saying that we have to choose him. And when they told him he’d have to leave office to run for President, he said he left for one day and things were a mess. He thought it was more important to maintain stability than to run for President and I liked that.”

She told me that one of the candidates came across as very intelligent, but that he was associated with the events in Andijon and that he wants an Islamic state. “If he wins, it would be bad for stability,” she said. “He is smart, but he would make Kyrgyzstan a friend of Al Qaeda and it would be dangerous. Other than him, the other candidates are OK.”

From there, we walked across town, caught a minivan-bus and rode it to the edge of Osh, where we found a pool filled with fresh river water and a lake with paddleboats. So for me, the images I have of election day are of two small boys taking a break from selling candy, chasing each other with plastic water guns, of families carting watermelons and food to picnic grounds, of browned, half-naked bodies lining river, canal, pool and lake edges and of a woman holding onto a metal wire as she stood on the steep canal bank and held her aluminum bucket into the rushing turquoise water, passing in on to her son on the rebound, who brought it to the nearby field.

In the evening, the family ate an entire watermelon, which seems to be becoming a nightly ritual. We sat out on the porch, overlooking the exploding colors of flowers in the garden. At midnight, Nigora and Shavkat were still there. They had returned from buying tomatoes and green peppers from a neighbor. They sat near each other at the low table enjoying the cool evening air, the darkness, and each other’s company.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Election Eve

The Kyrgyz presidential election will take place tomorrow. And everyone hopes that the country’s residents can breathe a collective sigh of relief on Monday.

In the past week, there have been extensive efforts to promote a show of democracy – free newspapers with information about the six male and one female candidate are available in piles everywhere, TV and newspaper ads repeatedly condemn vote buying and urge voters and candidates not to participate. Yesterday I saw a bank director leading a staff meeting. He suddenly stopped when he received a text message and everyone paused in the uncomfortable silence, while he played with his phone.

“I got a message reminding me of the elections on Sunday and urging everyone to maintain stability,” he said. “I suppose you’ll all receive the message soon.” He closed the meeting, urging everyone to vote and to maintain stability.

“For Bakiev,” an employee said, voicing the common opinion that a vote for the acting President would maintain stability.

“For whoever you want,” the director said. This is a democracy and you should exercise your rights. Americans very much value individual rights and you should take advantage of yours.”

Everyone I’ve spoken to is planning to vote. “Everyone else is voting, so I will too,” our driver Malan said. “Of course I’ll vote, it’s my duty,” someone else said. But I have yet to meet anyone voting for anybody other than Bakiev. All of my coworkers, acquaintances and family members will all vote for him.

“If there was somebody smarter, I’d be glad to vote for them,” Nigora said. “But now I don’t see a choice other than Bakiev.”

“What we really need is a young candidate who has lived in America or Europe,” Shavkat said. “But none of them have. They are all part of the system.”

“Many of them studied or worked in Russia,” Nigora said.

“That doesn’t count. They are still one of us. As soon as they get into office, they will bring in their friends and they are used to stealing. They have to live in the West for a long time in order to really be able to separate themselves from the system and to bring new ideas.”

This evening I got a text message reminding me of the election: “10 July from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. will be the presidential election. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen and vote for the future of the country. Company BITEL.”

The weather in Osh has been incredibly hot – regularly over 100 degrees. Combined with the jetlag, it drains me of all energy, so that I come home from work and plop on the bed until awakening for another day’s work. The heat is so oppressive, I can feel its pressure on my eyes and constantly seek out shade. The blue river rushing through the center of town, carrying melted mountain snow, calls out to me, and I envy the half-naked people playing along its banks.

The fruit and vegetable paradise is in full bloom. At our office alone, we’ve already plucked cherries off trees and raspberries off bushes. My coworker found a giant peach today and there will be more to come. Small, hard grapes hang from the trellis, ripening in the heat. Apples, plums, apricots, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon and figs fill the markets and are sold very cheaply.

In a week and a half, I have a seminar at Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake and biggest tourist attraction. We won’t have a lot of free time to enjoy it, but during the sweltering days, I do imagine jumping into the chill waters and basking in the coolness.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Back in Kyrgyzstan (again)

Happy fourth of July to those who are celebrating!

I’ve returned to Kyrgyzstan after a week and a half in Germany. Here, there is no sign of a holiday. Things are mainly the same as before. I saw a man on horseback cross the road as I headed toward the airport, reminding me that I was back in horseback country. Signs of additional security are evident, such as the man in camouflage and a cowboy hat, accompanying us on the bus to the airplane, gripping a giant gun. But the past week has been quiet, with no disturbances. This evening, the first set of presidential debates will be on television.

Our driver Malan met me at the airport and I asked for an update. He said that everyone is getting ready for the election and that he expects they will be peaceful. Bayaman, the Osh “bandit” who was inspiring protests in the week before I left, seems to have disappeared. “No one knows where he is,” Malan said.

As we neared central Osh, I noticed the first political banner. “Bakiev,” I read from the sheet draped above the street.

“They are all over,” Malan said. “Before we used to have Akaev’s face all around us, now we have Bakiev all around us.”

“But Akaev had huge portraits of himself. Maybe Bakiev is being more modest,” I said, looking at the small square of his face on the banner. Just then I noticed a giant billboard on the corner, featuring the face of a heavyset woman.

“Does she want to be president?” I asked.

“Yes. But I don’t think she can. I don’t think anyone other than Bakiev has a chance. And he has some large ads as well. There is a big one with his face just a few blocks down.”

Malan said that Bakiev and his planned prime minister, Kulov, came to Osh last week and gathered a large crowd at the stadium. “I would have liked to have gone and listened to them, but we had to work,” Malan said. I asked if he plans to vote next Sunday. “Of course,” he said. “Everyone else is voting and I will too.”

At home, the garden at burst into a bloom of whites, golds, pinks and reds, including the flower I brought from Holland, which managed to produce five flowers and let them die in the time I was gone. Faruh took photos for my benefit.

At home, the refrigerator broke and Nigora brought a few of my perishables to a neighbor’s fridge. Among them was a small glass jar of feta cheese in olive oil, a little treat I brought from France. “My neighbor asked me what that was,” Nigora said, “and I didn’t know. I said maybe there were some fruits in there.”

Melons have come into season since I left and Nigora placed two plates of melon slices on the table for dessert. I brought out the gummy bears, sour gummy candy, and mini sausages I brought from Germany. Nigora carefully cut open the package of gummy bears and poured half of it onto a plate. She wanted to save the second bag of candy for another table. Holding the sausages up to the light, she said, “We probably won’t eat these for quite some time. We’ll make them last a while.” They ate the gummy bears slowly, one by one.

“Mmm, the different colors have different tastes,” Nigora said. “The green tastes different from the red.” She’d hold up each bear to look at it before popping it into her mouth.

“They are like dried fruits,” Shavkat said.

I love introducing them to new things, but it was strange to watch them eat the gummy bears so carefully, knowing they might never see such a thing again.

I told them about the rent-a-bike system in Germany and I how I enjoying biking through Frankfurt. I told them how the drivers respected bikers, watched out for them, and twice, even reversed in order to let me go easily by.

“Someday, our country will also be like that,” Nigora said.

“Not for a long time,” Shavkat said. I told him that drivers in Germany recognized they could kill a biker if they weren’t careful, and they were conscious of the consequences. “Here, they kill the biker first, then they think about the consequences.”

“Maybe it will take a long time, but someday, our country will also be like that,” Nigora said. “J can come back and see it in her next lifetime.”

The evening TV was full of election commercials promoting a fair and honest election. “Honest elections depend on us.” “Use your vote, don’t sell it.” And along the bottom of the TV scrolled a free hotline to report election violations.