Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A New President

On Sunday, Bakiyev was inaugurated as the President of Kyrgyzstan. It all went peacefully and now life can officially return to normal.

When I flew into Bishkek yesterday from Osh, the locals I shared a car to town with complained about the cost of the ceremony.

“They spent $50,000,” one of them complained.

“Yes, it’s a lot, but it was the first time,” another young woman said.

“It’s too much. That’s money from the budget. It’s the people’s money.”

They agreed that the August 31st independence day festivities would probably be modest.

“There isn’t any money left,” they said.

This morning I took off from Bishkek on British Air, heading to the U.S., via London, for vacation. My last four international flights have been on Aeroflot and I’m very quickly approaching Aeroflot silver flier status. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to not have my knees crammed into the grimy seat ahead of me, to sit in a sparkling interior, to receive good service, and to cross continents without serious fear of crashing. The high risk that my luggage will be lost or delayed is almost acceptable given these benefits.

As we prepared for takeover, the flight captain warned us, “If you haven’t flown from here before, you should know that the runway is pretty bumpy.” I laughed, thinking of my takeoff from Osh the evening before. Although there is a runway there, for some reason we took off from a field. Dust rose in brown clouds below the wheels. From my window I watched three boys who’d somehow gotten onto the runway, jump and wave goodbye.

Enroute to London, we made a stop in Yerevan, Armenia. From the window I saw a landscape that reminded me of Osh – gold, green and brown striated fields, and flat land with mountains rising up spontaneously, singly or as ridges on the horizon. From the air, the Armenian capital looked like a provincial Soviet town – flat, dull and grey. An interesting domed church and red tower stood out among the uniform homes and buildings. The pilot warned us about the “notoriously bumpy” runway as we landed.

Upon arriving in London five hours later, I rode the bus from the airplane to the terminal and I thought I might have mistakenly landed in India. Women in shalwar kamisez, the color of spring flowers, and dark-skinned men in turbans walked along the freeway. On a grassy hillside, a group of protestors, mostly Indian, gathered in support of the catering company employees who were recently fired.

Heathrow is a disorganized and congested airport. But it’s a better place to spend time than the dark and dank Moscow Sheremetyevo, where the only things to buy are perfume, alcohol and reheated fast food. Sitting in the departure lounge, I’m surrounded by light, products brightly illuminated for sale, the hiss of the Starbucks blender making iced coffee drinks, the murmurs of passengers speaking in many foreign languages. I’ve taken seven trips overseas in the last nine months. But each time I’m awed anew by the colors, the modernization, the consumerism and the choice. Knowing that I have two weeks of American consumerism awaiting me, I’m able to hold off on impulse buying.

Sitting in this clean and contained environment, I appreciate its conveniences. But I also think back to this past weekend, which I spent at Kara-Shoro national park. Together with 20 staff members, we took two small buses along four hours of bumpy roads to reach the remote park. We arrived on Friday at 1 a.m. and were greeted by a view of the sky even better than a planetarium – the sparkling stars, planets, constellations, and galactial swirls brilliant in the pure blackness. We slept 10 to a bed and on the floor of basic tents. We ate plov and dumlyma cooked in giant iron vats, as well as startlingly pink watermelons dripping sweet juices. We walked through the mountains to a small lake, where the flowers and trees reflected upon the water like a mirror. And we saw horses, raised for meat, milked for koumiss (fermented mares milk), and ridden in races, roaming across the valley, or jailoos. We sucked in the cool, crisp and fresh air and I remember that every place has its treasures, its aspects of life that can’t compare to any other country. And as cool as it is to look out at a shop full of books in English, to hear people speaking various languages, to see that everyone around me is relatively comfortable, I envy the people currently breathing the Kyrgyz mountain air.

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