Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Uzbek cotton pickers

I had read in an essay about Uzbekistan that cotton is so essential to the local culture that the national soccer team is called the Cotton Pickers.

Tonight, Nigora told me that her sister’s husband, his father and all his brothers were big soccer fans.

“They loved it so much that they’d fly from Osh to Tashkent to watch the Cotton Pickers play, then fly back the next day.” Of course, this was during Soviet times, when flights between Osh and Tashkent existed and were affordable.

I asked her about the name. To her, it didn’t seem strange at all.

“Cotton is called white gold,” she said. “Everyone in Uzbekistan earns a living thanks in some way to cotton.”

Unfortunately, a sharp fall chill is setting in and I’m afraid our dinners on the patio will be ending soon, as will our extended evening talks. Soon enough, I’ll probably go back to having a dinner delivered to my room.

Only six more days to go until Ramadan and the weddings are still going full blast. It’s hard for me to believe that there are enough single people available to get married to make so many weddings in one month.

Earlier this week, Nigora’s brother called and asked her to do some spy work. He wants to marry off his 26-year-old. That’s very old by Uzbek standards and apparently there aren’t many choices available. They found one option, a lepushka-maker, that the daughter is satisfied with. Problem is, this guy has been married before and his wife has been in Russia for the past four years. They are not officially divorced and at any point, it’s possible that the wife could come back. She has a daughter with her in Russia and their son is living with this man in Osh.

Nigora was sent to walk around on the street where the man lives and to try to find out about his character by talking to the local women. She was nervous and wasn’t looking forward to it. But she put on her nice green dress, her green scarf and her gold jewelry and went out to spy.

She came back late that evening. “Nobody especially praised him, but nobody condemned him either. I learned that he and his wife fought from the time they got married and they spent a lot of time screaming at each other.”

“That’s not a good sign,” I said.

“No, but they say that his wife had that kind of character.”

“Of course it’s easy to blame her,” I said. “She’s not here. Why don’t they call her and find out from her what she thinks?”

“Yes, some more research needs to be done,” she said.

I asked if they decided to go through with the wedding when it would be held.

“It could be within a week,” she said. I found that amazing.

On Sunday I went to my second wedding this fall. It was at the same restaurant and at the same time as the wedding I’d attended a week before.

The bride, one of our employees, was beautiful and demure. When I asked a coworker if the bride was OK, she said, “Yes, she’s supposed to sit quietly.”

The celebration went until almost midnight, then the couple had to drive to the groom’s parents’ home in the village of Alai, almost two hours away. I would guess that the roads weren’t too good.

“Why do they have to go so far right after the wedding?” I asked the girl sitting next to me? They could let them rest in peace for one night, I thought.

“His parents must want that,” she said. I wondered if they would hang a sheet outside the next morning, as still happens in some villages and I felt sorry for the bride.

In Osh, cotton is blooming on the branches, President Bakiev’s portrait is appearing on some large billboards, and watermelon is nearing the end of its season, losing the brightness and sweetness of summer. My health club, owned by Bayaman, is back in operation. A huge poster with his torso in front of a background of mountains hangs on the wall, watching over the wrestlers.

Everyone is busy getting ready for winter. Nigora has spent the last few days canning peaches, tomatoes, pickles and red peppers. She prepares and cans them, Shavkat screws on the lid, then they put them on the patio covered with a quilt. The next morning, any cans improperly closed will have raised lids, so they can pull out the unhygienic products.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

other events of the week

This was a big week politically in Kyrgyzstan, with all kinds of factions forming and dividing, politicians worrying about threats on their life, rich people wondering if their past crimes would come back to haunt them. But in my simpler, smaller world, my highlight of the week was helping a 13-year-old neighborhood girl, Alfiya, to write and submit an essay to an American magazine. It was accepted. In addition to her essay being published next summer, she’ll receive $30. That’s a big deal for a little girl with an absent alcoholic father, an 80-year-old grandmother, and a mother who is a teacher, but has spent time off work in the past due to reputed psychological problems. It makes me happy to see how excited she is and to know the respect she’ll get from her classmates and neighbors for her little spot of fame.

I was also involved in hiring several people this week. That’s one of my favorite aspects of being here, is finding smart, motivated young people and being able to offer them work because of their qualifications and potential, with no attention paid to connections, bribes or anything else. We’ve made some mistakes, but in the time I’ve been here, I’ve also seen others develop wonderfully and it’s a great feeling to watch them grow professionally.

Nigora had a toothache. She spent a couple days in real pain, wrapping a pink scarf around her head. Finally, she went to the dentist and had the tooth pulled. They gave her a painkiller shot, but it hurt enough once the medicine wore off for her to lie down and cry for two hours.

By that afternoon, she was already up and at a parent-teacher conference at Faruh’s school. Faruh has been mainly studying things like theater and music lately. “The other teachers haven’t come back yet or aren’t around,” he said.

Nigora said that the teacher passed out a questionnaire to parents and that most only wrote one or two word answers. “But I wrote and I wrote,” Nigora said. “They asked me about Faruh, his good sides and his bad sides and what I wanted from his education. I said that I wanted all the teachers to be there, for them to teach him well, and for there to be enough books.”

Weddings continue daily, morning and night. Every morning by 6:30 the sound of cornets and rapidly beating drums echoes down the street, coming into my bedroom. One morning on the way to work I passed by one and was invited to sit with the men at a table on the street. I drank a cup of tea, then they brought out a bowl of fatty bouillon with a big chunk of meat in it. I took a few small sips and told them I was late for work.

“We’ll be offended if you don’t eat it,” they said. When I said I really had to go, they got a plastic bag and put the meat in it for me to eat at work.

Finally, today a Felt Festival was held at a resort at the edge of the city. Who would have thought that felt could be celebrated for an entire day? But here, anything is possible. A community development group with international donors set up the day-long affair. In traditional Kyrgyz fashion, nothing started on time.

We heard the music of a traditional Kyrgyz instrument group, had an appropriately fatty lunch in a yurt (the owner of the yurt, who spent 30 years in it with his family, ate with us), complete with fermented mare’s milk, and saw how wool was cleaned, carded, dyed and made into two traditional Kyrgyz handicrafts, shyrdak and ala-kiyiz.

I enjoyed watching the dying. A 60-year-old woman, who has been involved in the craft for 15 years, collected mountain grasses and soaked them in water for 10 hours. Then she boiled them for 30 minutes, scooped out the grass, strained the liquid through a scarf, and was left with a dye that turned her wool a natural shade of green.

She used to work alone, but five years ago she joined one of the unions of handicraft workers sponsored by this organization. I asked why she did so. “It helps me to gain experience, we exchange ideas, and we get access to international markets.” She earns 11,000 som (about $250) every six months from her work.

Bayaman is dead

On Wednesday night, just after 10 p.m., I was watching a DVD episode of the Sopranos on my computer screen. At the same time, the deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev was returning to his home in Bishkek. When he stepped out of his car, he was shot several times and died.

This was big news. No one talks about his bad side, but he is pretty generally viewed as a bandit. A very rich and powerful bandit and deputy in the national legislature.

I heard the news when my colleague checked the internet. I thought he had disappeared after the unrest at the Kara-Suu market and the shootout at his Alai Hotel in Osh. I guess it would have been smarter for him to stay out of sight a while longer.

On Thursday evening I tried to go to aerobics. The wrestling center and sports hall was also owned by Bayaman, an athlete who was also head of the Kyrgyz Olympic Committee. A wide sheet of paper hung on the front door with two black ribbons hanging on either side. In large black text it read, “Due to the tragic event of the murder of Bayaman, we will be closed to attend the burial ceremonies until September 26th.”

“All that work he put in, all the effort to get more and do more, and it’s all gone,” our driver, Malan, said.

The news stories say that the government arrested Bayaman’s bodyguards several days before and that he’d been left without protection. The Prime Minister, Felix Kulov, said that Bayaman came to him two days earlier, said he knew that someone was trying to kill him, and told Kulov the name. He asked Kulov to announce the name publicly should anything happen to Bayaman.
Whether this is true or not, who knows, but Kulov says he told the security services the name.

follow up to September 20

After interviewing all five candidates, Mirlan decided that he wanted the girl after all. Yes, she was married, but she already had a child (and for some reason, he doesn’t seem to think she’ll have another).

“She’s a bit older than the others and she’s going to be more serious. She won’t be ready to run off as soon as she finds something else she likes. She has a family and she will work hard to keep her job.”

So on Thursday, Katya was offered and accepted the job.

Friday, September 23, 2005

decision by mass gathering

No killer has yet been caught in the murder of the Kara-Suu market director. People were upset about that and some thought it must be someone connected to Bayaman, the former director. They demanded that the President fire the General Prosecutor for failure to do his job.

President Bakiev fired him. Then, in the village of Aksu, where the General Prosecutor is from, a thousand people gathered to demand his reinstatement. They threatened to march on Bishkek to make their demands. That’s a long trip – at least 12 hours over several high mountain passes and rough roads. But getting groups of 1,000 people or so together seems to have quite a bit of effect in the post-revolution Kyrgyzstan.

It’s like a clan system of democracy. People are active and they lobby in groups. But they aren’t necessarily lobbying for their own personal or group interests (the squatters in Bishkek are an exception). They stand behind their kin and their townsfolk, or possibly, whoever is willing to pay them, and make their demands by getting in the faces of the decision-makers.

But this kind of system holds little prospect for peaceful conflict resolution. If the 1,000 backers of this guy win, then a 1,000 backers of the new guy could appear; both groups trying to shout harder and longer. And one hopes that they are willing to stay only with shouting.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Lessons from a Convict

Today I noticed that our driver, Malan, was reading a book. He rarely reads anything other than the advertisement-filled local paper or an ancient English book for schoolchildren. So the cheaply made book, covered with a sheet of light blue paper, caught my attention. I asked what it was about.

“It was written by a local man who got caught up in making easy money. He sold drugs, engaged in unethical activity and lived a lavish lifestyle. But in the end, he ended up in prison and they took away his house.”

“What kind of advice does he offer?”

“He says not to get involved in those kinds of activities. It’s not worth it.”

He told me that he knows of several people involved in the drug trade and he can tell because of their extravagant lifestyles, their frequent eating out at restaurants, and their lack of respect for anyone other than themselves.

“I used to work as a driver taking goods to Russia and on many occasions I was offered to take a few kilograms of heroine with me. They told me that I wouldn’t be checked, that I could buy myself a car with the proceeds. But I never did it. Jail here is no paradise and I didn’t want to end up there. They told me I was stupid, that I was making a miserable income. But I work like a turtle, consistently and reliably.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Married Women Not Allowed

Today I worked with Mirlan, a local manager, to hire some new employees. There were four males and one female under consideration and we had to decide whom to grant an individual interview. All the candidates were reasonably qualified and personable.

He said he liked two of the boys. I agreed, then suggested we interview the girl as well.

“Your team has become a bit too male,” I said. The last three staff members taken had been male. If he would take two more, the balance would be seriously skewed.

“That’s fine with me,” he said. “I look at the resume and if I see it’s a married woman, I’d rather have the man. At any time she could become pregnant and go on maternity leave. It’s more profitable for us to take men.”

I agreed that was possible, but reminded him that in our experience, local woman are more productive on average than the men and more likely to fill leadership roles.

“So, she might take off 3-12 months for maternity leave,” I said. “Then she’ll return and be an efficient and responsible worker.”

“And then she’ll be asking for time off all the time because the child is sick. A man would never take sick time off.”

“We don’t experience that problem elsewhere,” I said.

“There are other people, like relatives, who can help with small children,” Camilla said, the 21-year-old who is about to rise to a management position after a year of work. Clearly, as someone who wanted to someday get married and have children, it was uncomfortable for her to hear her boss say that he didn’t expect much from women once they got married. Her brow furrowed and she looked at the two of us debating with an embarrassed smile.

“Still, if there are two equal candidates, I’d rather take the male,” Mirlan said.

In the end, we agreed to interview all five candidates. But I felt sorry for the local women, who not only have little choice in who or when they marry, but then are penalized on the employment front afterward.

A German colleague said it was not so much different in Germany. “Of course it’s illegal,” he said. “As it’s considered discrimination. But anyone hiring a 25 or 26 year old woman will first try to make sure of her plans for the next several years.”

Today Nigora went to the Social Fund office where she signed herself up for a discount card that will give her half price off medical care at any government clinic. Everyone else in the family was already registered. Then she signed herself up for the pension fund. Even if she doesn’t work, if she contributes 135 som per month (about $3.50), she’ll be eligible for a pension in her old age.

“How much will the pension be?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t look into it in that much depth. The workers were about to go to lunch. So I just grabbed the card and paid my money.”

“What’s the name of the card?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t read it.”

She is trying to work. She went to the market again today to try to find a place to sell dishes.

“There aren’t any places available for rent,” she said. “Only small containers available to buy. But they are expensive, $2000, $2500. I’d rather try renting first to see how it works out.”

She asked Shavkat what he thought about buying and he said he was still thinking.

“Papa thinks all the time,” Habib said. “But he never does anything.” Today Shavkat went out carousing with his friends, and probably drinking.

Nigora might be able to get a spot at the market during Orozo, or Ramadan. “Right now, with all the weddings, it’s high season,” she said. “And no one wants to leave the market. But soon it will be Orozo, then it will start getting cold. And I should be able to get a spot then.”

The weddings are really unbelievable. Last night I went to bed with the sound of an emcee yelling through a loudspeaker at a neighborhood wedding. This morning I got up at 6:30 and heard the sound of drums, trombones, and fast, upbeat music.

“No way,” I said to Nigora, as she padded in her nightgown to the outdoor stove. “These weddings go all night?”

“No, this is a different wedding. This one is on our street.”

“At 6:30 in the morning?”

“Usually the men go to work and can’t attend the festivities later in the day. So for them, they prepare a breakfast.”

This evening, there were also wedding sounds, though whether from the same one or a different one, I couldn’t tell. “It’s as though people think the world is going to end,” Nigora said. “Everyone has to get married before Orozo. And those who don’t make it will get married after Orozo. With the first days after Orozo, there will be another huge group of weddings, all the way until early winter. Everyone wants to get married while the fruits and vegetables are fresh from harvest. It’s in their interest to be able to put watermelon and honeydew on the table.”

Monday, September 19, 2005

A family outing

Yesterday the whole family jumped into Shavkat’s newly refurbished bright red Niva. We drove east toward Nookat through dry, golden hills, all the fresh life of spring and summer already drained out. As we neared Nookat, we passed rows of dried tobacco, brown, shriveled and sagging, hanging in eaves from fences.

“Nigora used to come to Nookat frequently to sell used things,” Shavkat told me from the driver’s seat. “Like children’s clothing.” They’d let me sit in the passenger seat, where there was a seat belt and my long legs would fit. Nigora and the two older boys sat in back and Lutfulo sat on cushions in the rear compartment.

“Why Nookat?” I asked. It was an hour drive. “Why not Osh?”

“Gas was cheap then. And people didn’t buy them as quickly as in Osh. In Nookat, people are poorer. Everyone gathers there – Uzbeks from Ferghana and Margilan, Russians who are preparing to leave the area.”

Habib gave his father an annoyed glance. “Why are you telling J. you used to sell old things?”

“Why not?” Shavkat asked. “Why throw things in the fire when you can sell them?”

“It’s embarrassing. You talk too much.”

“That reminds me,” Nigora said. “We need to sell some furniture.”

“Yes, like the washing machine,” Shavkat said, referring to the horrible old Soviet washing machine Nigora currently uses. It has to be hooked up to a pipe and does an excellent job at wearing out clothes very quickly. “Soon you’ll have a new washing machine.” He’s been promising to bring her one from Bishkek for ages.

“No one is going to take your old washing machine,” Nigora said. “That thing is done with.”

“People in Nookat will,” Shavkat said confidently.

We stopped in Nookat to buy grilled meat and watermelon. I was hungry and made the mistake of buying a samsa, a meat, fat and onion-filled pastry, pulled right from the side of the clay oven. Despite my pulling out all the visible chunks of fat and the “juice” (melted fat), the samsa sat in my stomach like a rock, leaving me unable to eat anything else until the evening. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Every time I eat super fatty food in a rural area I remind myself to never do it again. Then I return, hungry, and give in, only to repeat my mistake.

“You needed to drink hot tea with it,” Nigora said. “Or at least bread.” Locals believe that if you drink hot tea with fat, it reduces its effects. Perhaps it keeps it liquid as it goes through the arteries, reducing the amount that clogs and sticks to the artery walls.

We went to a tourist base called Sahoba. It’s a holy site. A small brick mosque contains a collection of ancient rocks with Arabic writing and people come to pray at the nearby mausoleum, holding the grave of a holy person. When I asked who, Shavkat said he didn’t know history too well.

We tried to walk up the mountains rising behind the park and to check out the caves we could see high up in the rock. But someone had built a house in the park area, blocking off the path with a fence and even blocking off a cave and putting goats inside.

We returned to the tourist area, where we swung on red and blue iron “boats” (two-person standing swings). We had a picnic lunch on a topchan, a wooden bed that we lay mats over and sit in a circle around the food in the center. We sat beneath the shade of a grove of apricot trees and listened to the sounds of a wedding being celebrated nearby and the creaking of the swings.

From there, we drove along a rough road connecting Nookat and Aravan. It is now a sparsely traveled road, but it used to be part of the great Silk Road. I tried to imagine caravans passing along the bumpy path, past poplar-lined residential areas and the rocky passes. They probably saw dusty children sitting in the road, watching them pass by with wide eyes, just as I saw.

We drove past fields of flowering tobacco, corn and sunflower seeds. Red streaks from iron ore glimmered in the mountains. About halfway between the two towns, the mountains met together in a giant V, only the force of a river keeping them apart.

Shavkat told me that the Soviets had planned to close up the narrow gap between the mountains, back up the river and make a water reservoir. This would have flooded all the houses in the area. They didn’t manage to get around to it before the fall of the Soviet Union, and thus, it never happened.

It’s quite a beautiful place now. Water runs out from a 10-foot wide tunnel-like cave, down a moss-covered waterfall and into the quick-moving waters, which race through the gorge and out of sight around the corner. The children threw rocks into the water. The rock fragments glittered with quartz and minerals caught between the stone.

A bit further on, we entered another cave. I wore my trusty headlamp, which I haven’t put on in years, and we went in to see barite and bats. It was a modest cave exploration – no more than a few minutes – but it was my first time in Kyrgyz caves and I was excited. There are supposed to be ancient rock drawings in the area and I’m hoping to find a local guide who can show me them at some point.

In Aravan, we stopped at the market, where Nigora and Shavkat stocked up on what could be found cheaply there – fresh sunflower oil poured from barrels into used bottles using a funnel, rice and watermelon.

Habib waited in the car and tried to turn on the radio. “It picks up the channel from Uzbekistan but doesn’t pick up the channel from Kyrgyzstan,” he said. The watermelon we bought had come from Uzbekistan and Shavkat said that Osh, Uzgen, Nookat and Aravan all used to be almost exclusively Uzbek places.

“The Kyrgyz lived on the outskirts, in the rural areas,” he said.

“I never used to see Kyrgyz,” Nigora said, though she grew up in the city of Osh. “I’d maybe see one or two per week, coming to sell milk. They didn’t start moving into the cities until the 1970s, when they built universities in Osh.”

She told me that she grew up in a home in the very center of Osh. But the Soviets declared eminent domain, cleared out the Uzbek homes, and constructed a multi-level apartment building for Kyrgyz instead.

“Wasn’t your family offended?” I asked.

“Very much so,” she said. “It’s like your parents (who are currently being forced to move due to eminent domain in the U.S.). They were given two plots of land on the outskirts of town and told to build their own house. But my father was too old to build something. So he gave the land to his nephews and bought a house in a village.”

On the way to Osh we could see the fence separating Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

“That’s Uzbekistan,” Shavkat said, pointing to the nearby brown mountains. Their ethnic homeland is so close and yet so far.

a wedding

I ended my weekend with my first wedding of this fall. I received the invitation only the night before. My friend Asel was getting married.

We’d met one evening last fall at a bus stop. She was carrying her belongings wrapped in blankets and there were no buses in sight. I got a taxi for all of us.

After that, we met several times. She showed me the central and holy Osh mountain, Souleymane, and she helped my boyfriend make a turkey for a Thanksgiving celebration.

When she applied for a job with my organization, she made it to the third round, then was rejected by the local interviewers. They were too afraid that she didn’t understand the separation between work and family relations and that she would try to use her position to get services for her family members.

“Kyrgyz have that in them,” Nigora said. “Uzbeks are different. After two generations we are already distant from each other. But Kyrgyz can be nine or ten times removed and still consider themselves relatives. They really retain their clans. And that is why have all these little wars, between Akaev’s clan and Bakiev’s clan, north and south.”

She said that when people ask her for help, they know that she will help if she can. “And if I can’t,” she said, “I say no.”

“And they don’t get offended?” I asked.

“No. Recently a neighbor asked me if you could help them get credit. I told them that you couldn’t help, you just give consultations. And he understood.”

Asel called me after the interview to tell me that she’d been nervous and she was afraid she’d answered the questions wrong.

When she was rejected, she seemed to think that I would have helped her get the job. I explained that I purposely removed myself from participation, since I knew her, and that the locals made the decision.

Since then, several months ago, we hadn’t had any communications, until I suddenly received this last minute wedding invitation.

So I walked to the restaurant near my home where the wedding was being held. She comes from a rural family, makes a tiny salary as a university English teacher, and lived very simply in a student dormitory. So I expected a humble wedding.

I was surprised to walk into the smoky, vast room and see at least a few hundred well-dressed guests. On the far side of the room, I could see her, her bridesmaid, groom and best man standing at the head table. Behind them, multicolored lights flashed, as though they were inside a pinball game. A group of about 25 people stood near me, passing around the microphone and making toasts as they presented their gift.

People come up in groups, by family, coworkers, group of friends and jointly give speeches, toasts and sing songs. They then present their gift (often given as a group and often flowers, money or carpets), walking across the empty central area to the accompaniment of upbeat music. After the presenters kiss and congratulate the bride and groom, they begin dancing. Others join for a song or two, then the next group of speech-givers rises. While speeches are being given the wedding party has to stand. Watching the four of them stand wooden-like during the interminable speech, I wondered if Kyrgyz weddings were much fun at all for those getting married.

I went to greet Asel. She looked beautiful in her white dress, with a low-cut neckline and a pearl necklace. Her husband was tall, slender, and attractive. He wore a black suit and a tall, white Kyrgyz hat (kalpak). He had several gold teeth that glittered when he smiled.

I was hoping I could quietly hand her my gift and not have to stand in front of hundreds of people and make a speech, as is usually done. But one of the first things out of her mouth was, “Could you please say some words in English. I would like everyone to know that there is a foreigner here.”

I couldn’t help but feel as though that was the purpose of my presence, to show off a foreigner at her wedding. But if what she wanted on her wedding day was a speech in English, I’d give it to her.

They sat me a table with her colleagues, mostly English speakers. At least several times they repeated the request – could you please give a speech in English? They assigned one of them to translate it, though I could have translated it myself. But it gave another person a chance to look good.

So when the group of colleagues was called up the microphone, I went with them. First an older women spoke in Kyrgyz. I could understand that she introduced me as an American.

I took the microphone and said in Russian that the bride asked me to speak a few words in English, so I’d do so, and the woman next to me would translate. I then began my little toast, talking about how we’d met and wishing them all the good things people wish each other at weddings. Not long after I began speaking, people began to mutter. They couldn’t understand anything and there was no point in listening. So I spoke faster to get it over with.

After we presented our gifts, we had to dance. The videocameras zoomed in on me. I’m always nervous in front of videocameras, but especially at foreign weddings. I just imagine how people will replay the tape and point out the weird foreigner who was at their wedding.

While we were dancing, a Kyrgyz woman approached me with breath that smelled of mutton. “I’m Asel’s mom,” she said, with evident pride.

I tried to leave as inconspicuously as possible, but a relative of Asel’s followed me and told me that I couldn’t leave without food. It would be offensive to them. So I waited while he went back in and filled a plastic bag with lepushka (the round, local bread), pistachios, candies, grapes, apples and several hunks of meat.

At home, I asked Nigora if it was usual to send people home with meat. It’s considered expensive for local standards. “Yes, for the most honored guests, usually they will include meat,” she said.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

search for clean water in a land of water

I think I need to start buying bottled water. I thought that a Brita filter was enough, but recently, even after the water has been filtered it comes out grey. This morning I asked Nigora if the water looked strange to her.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why I collect water here in this bucket and let it sit for a day. Then the dirt falls to the bottom. You can take some water from here.”

Though I have no idea whether or not it’s true, I can’t help recalling my coworker’s statement that the high degree of kidney problems here come from the water. Does anybody know if there is any validity to that?

We lost a 25-year-old employee to kidney problems a few months ago. Just this month, an employee in her early twenties was off work for two weeks for kidney treatment.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Shavkat Takes Another Aborted Tour

The man who was killed in Kara-Suu was the director of the market and his driver, who was his nephew. He was the one who took over management after the local thug and politician, Bayaman, was kicked out. People think it was Bayaman’s people who killed him. Bayaman himself has been out of sight for weeks.

Yesterday Shavkat returned from a three-day trip to the mountains with two Israeli tourists. He has gone three times with Maxim since the trip on which he went crazy. One time was OK, another time Shavkat did all the guiding work (he’s just supposed to drive), but there was no catastrophe. This time was another problem.

On the night before they were supposed to leave, Maxim was drunk. Shavkat yelled at him. “You have a trip tomorrow. You better make sure you are sober by then.” Maxim said he would be.

The next morning, when Shavkat went to pick up Maxim, then the tourists, Maxim was still drunk. And he’d already spent the $75 the tourists left as a down payment, inviting over his friends to drink.

On the way to the village, Maxim praised himself. “I’m an extreme athlete,” he repeated. “Extreme.”

That night they slept in tents, Shavkat in one, Maxim in another, and the tourists in a third. An hour after Shavkat went to bed, Maxim begin to call out. “Shavkat, help me,” he cried. “Help me.”

He was short of breath and felt sick. Shavkat did what he could. At 4 a.m., he decided to drive Maxim the four hours back to Osh, leaving the tourists in the care of a local Kyrgyz man.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” said Maxim, which must have been a depressing realization for a man who has spent his life in the mountains.

Shavkat went back to the village, taking Faruh with him, and succeeded in pleasing the upset tourists by the end of their tour.

This morning he went to have a talk with Maxim. “I’m going to tell him that this is it, he should not be going on these tours anymore. He can keep 10-15 percent, because he has to live, but then he should pass the tourists on to me. I need to scare him, because that is the only way he’ll understand. I’m going to tell him that these tourists threatened to file a court case.

“If he works this way – taking deposits and then not providing services, people could file court cases. I’m going to tell him that he’s ruining his reputation and he’s ruining my reputation. Enough is enough.”

With the imminent approach of Orozo (Ramadan) people are getting married like crazy. Virtually no weddings occur during the Holy Month, since it’s not much fun when people can’t eat and drink. So those who want to marry either have to do it now, or wait until November. Lines of cars file into the House of Happiness, where marriages are registered, even on weekdays. And from home I can frequently hear the honks of wedding parties driving through town.

The flu has been going around (I got hit earlier this week) and the air is very cool in the evenings. Summer is winding down and fall is on its way.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Murder in Kara-Suu

Yesterday somebody important was murdered in Kara-Suu. A “red father,” I was told.

“Like mafia?” I asked.


At home over dinner, nobody knew who it was either.

“I heard there was a car accident,” Nigora said. “And I saw a lot of government people on TV.”

“No, it was a director,” Faruh said.

They also told me about the recent murder of a woman at the base of Suleymane mountain.

“She sold gold and bragged about how much money she had,” Nigora said. “It was her own fault for being so open and for going there at night with that guy.”

She was killed for her money by her current boyfriend. According to Nigora, the police traced the killer by cell phone calls. “He was drunk when he did it and wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t sure if she was dead or not, so he called her cell phone three or four times to see if she picked up. That’s how they caught him.”

Once we got on the subject of violence, Habib asked me, “Why are there so many cases of children shooting people in America? We can understand in Russia that people drink too much. But we don’t understand why it happens in America.”

I told him that everyone would like to find the answer, but brought up bad families, poor support networks, psychological problems and examples provided on TV as possible factors. I also explained the strong peer pressure that children in America face and the real cruelties that children can inflict upon each other.

“I know it’s much different here,” I said as I explained how important it was to have a certain kind of jeans in junior high. To them it sounds ridiculous, and rightly so.

“For that reason, we had uniforms,” Nigora said. “And we never excluded students who had problems. We’d always help them. Three or four of us would stay after school and work with the student. We’d pull them along until the ninth grade, when we could say goodbye.”

Even modern youth, the three boys, looked askance at the idea of children separating into groups. It doesn’t make sense to their collective spirit and in this regard, the lack of individualism has its advantages.

“We might be moving toward that,” Nigora said. “As we start to have fee-based and free schools. Children will start to divide.”

“Murders don’t happen very often here,” Habib said. “So when they do, everyone talks about them.” They told me how justice could be purchased from the police. “There was a guy nearby who killed a taxi driver when he was drunk. He’s in jail now and his family is selling the house.”

“Will he go free for that?”

“He probably won’t go free, but his sentence will be reduced.”

“And that money won’t go to the government,” Nigora said. “It will go in the policeman’s pocket.”

The other night I got a ride home with a policeman, who was driving a taxi after hours to make some extra money.

“My salary of $50 a month isn’t enough,” he said. He was very down on Kyrgyzstan, saying that it was a good 50 years behind the development of other countries. He studied in Moscow and loved it there (“it was so clean and orderly”) but he had to come back because he was the youngest son. Here, youngest sons are expected to live with and take care of the parents.

He had just asked me what I thought kept the development behind and I answered a combination of government and culture. The youngest son tradition was an example, I told him, of something that had it’s benefits, by making sure that parents are taken care of in their old age, but also inhibited development by preventing their children from taking advantage of opportunities. He nodded.

Ramadan, locally called Orozo, is coming up next month. I learned that there is a large demand for thermoses during Ramadan and thermos-sellers are now stocking up. I guess it makes sense. When people can’t eat, they want to carry water around with them (though those who strictly fast are also not supposed to drink). But I find it interesting to see the effects of the month-long fast on the market. For food sellers it’s OK, as people tend to eat a lot in the evenings. For cafes, business goes down. And for other vendors, they often do poorly, since almost all weddings stop during Orozo. They are able to make up for it though with the flurry of pre- and post- Orozo weddings.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Reacclimating to Osh

I’m getting back into the Osh lifestyle, spending the weekend at home with my family and finishing my first day of work. I’m still jetlagged, rising at 5 and going to bed at eight or nine daily. But I’m slowly returning to the rhythm of Osh life.

Unlike my last home vacation, when a revolution took place in my absence, these last two weeks have been rather quiet. The President was inaugurated shortly before I left and life seems to be continuing quietly.

The season has progressed and the fall harvests are beginning to come in. It’s now the height of watermelon season, a big treat for me after the pale, tasteless watermelon I found in the U.S. On my way home from the airport, the first thing I did was to buy a giant watermelon for 75 cents. I’ve since reverted to the habit encouraged by my family of slicing up a watermelon for dessert every evening.

Nigora’s new business is still petering along. I had thought we might go on a picnic this weekend. But she had an order for dishes and was going to Andijan on Sunday to fulfill it. But when the rest of the family wanted to go to Kara-Suu (on the Kyrgyz side) to buy back-to-school clothing, she decided that was acceptable, though her profit would be lower. She couldn’t find all the dishes she needed and only made a $5 profit. She plans a real trip to Andijan this weekend and since I’ll soon be getting an Uzbek visa, I hope I can join her one Sunday. I’d love to see firsthand the process of the cross-border dishes trade. I’d also like to see Andijan, the site of the massacre by government troops just a few months ago.

“People forget very quickly,” Shavkat said last night, when Nigora spoke of how normal Andijan is.

“I doubt the people in Andijan have forgotten quickly,” I said.

School started September 1, so all three boys are back in school. Faruh is now in the seventh grade. He got a new teacher, an older Russian woman who used to teach at a sewing institute. She seems to be quite popular. Habib began his university studies. He is studying in the same institute as his older brother, Business and Management, but in the Management of Organizations faculty. And Lutfulo moved on to his second-year of university study in Finance and Credit.

I rarely spend a full day at home, so this weekend gave me a good chance to listen to the rhythm of Construction Street, that helped to carry me back into the rhythm of life in Osh. I usually don’t hear the 5 a.m. call to prayer, except when I’m jetlagged. The first call of the morning comes around 8, the high-pitched wailing voice (almost always female) advertising airan. These women carry two, worn, heavy bags filled with fresh milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, and yogurt from the countryside and they come every morning.

Shavkat and Nigora took turns going to the anniversary of a neighbor’s mother’s death – first the men, then the women. Nigora didn’t invite me to attend, but she brought me back a little meat tucked into a piece of bread and a piece of candy wrapped in golden orange foil.

At 11:15, I heard a young man outside my window. He was yelling in a punchy voice, as if giving instructions to a sports team – tomatoes, watermelon, peaches, and whatever other produce he had in stock. Instead of going to the market, some farmers drive directly into neighborhoods. They shout out what they have, and those interested can come out and buy large quantities without having to lug it home from the market. The prices are about the same as what they would pay in the central market, cheaper than what they’d pay at neighborhood stalls. Nigora often purchases from such vendors during the day.

At lunch time, another airan call came, this time from a younger woman, and the cycle repeated through the afternoon. I went to bed with the sound of the muezzin, completing the song.

The afternoons are still very warm and sunny, but in the evenings, the cool
bite of fall is already apparent. I’m starting to treasure the ability to walk, bike and play outdoors and try to take advantage of it fully during the final months.

Yesterday I played tennis in Osh for the first time. It was great to find the tennis courts hidden away, not far from where I used to work, but difficult to find anyway. They were surrounded by trees that had already shed their goldish-orange leaves and the smell of composting filled the air.

There were two clay courts. We played on a black asphalt court, with a sagging net. The rises, fall and cracks in the asphalt often made the ball take some surprisingly turns. But it felt wonderful, and almost surreal, to be playing tennis in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. A local Peace Corps volunteer had gotten donations of balls and racquets and started providing lessons to children three times a week for 25 cents per lesson. An even nicer concept than me getting to play tennis in Osh is the local children (apparently, mostly girls) having the opportunity to learn and to play.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Back in Osh

I arrived back in Kyrgyzstan yesterday and for the first time, it doesn’t feel like home. My ride to Bishkek from the airport was disturbing as my driver admitted that he hit and killed a man two years ago. The topic came up when he asked me if he could smoke. I noticed a do not smoke sign on the dashboard and asked who put it there.

“I did,” he said. “I didn’t smoke then.”

“Why did you start?”

“I had some problems and I started due to the stress.”

He told me that he was driving two Danish passengers in Bishkek around 11:30 p.m. “I was going about 45-50 kilometers per hour and suddenly this man, this drug addict, just jumped out into the street. I hit him. I took him to the hospital, but he ended up dying there.”

He was silent, then continued. “I didn’t want it to happen. I did everything I could. I spent two weeks searching for his parents. And when I found them, I told them what happened and I paid for everything.”

He said that the coroner found both alcohol and drugs in the victim’s system and my driver wondered if the man might have been trying to commit suicide. “His parents couldn’t accept that though, because if he did that, they’d have to blame him.”

He still owes the parents $1,000 for funeral expenses. “A lot of money went,” he said.

“That’s hard,” I said. I am usually quick to blame the drivers here for any accident involving a pedestrian. As a group, they are reckless and careless of the consequences until something happens. They don’t recognize the impact that their vehicle can have on a person’s ability to walk or live until it’s too late. In Osh, I’ve heard of countless incidents of people hitting pedestrians and bicyclists. Typically, the driver pays for everything, selling his house if needed, in order to avoid criminal charges. In this case, I really couldn’t tell who was to blame. But the driver was clearly distressed, even more than two years after the fact. And he drove rather carefully with me.

“Yes, it’s really hard,” he said.

I flew back to Osh, caught up on the news at work, and crashed early in the evening. My shower suddenly seemed dirty and rather primitive, the call to prayer I heard as I was going to sleep sounded foreign, and I resented the intrusion when Nigora came into my room late at night to turn off the light I accidentally left on.

Two weeks wasn’t long to be home, just barely long enough to catch up with some family and a few friends. But this time, it seemed long enough to change my perception of home.