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 café’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.

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