Saturday, October 29, 2005

Life in Bishkek

I’m now approaching two weeks in Bishkek. It somehow seems as though it’s been much longer.

Leaving my family in Osh was very difficult. We’d become quite used to each other over the last 10 months and I knew even before I left how much I’d miss their company, our friendly dinners and our evening discussions. In my final days, I tried to spend as much time with them and others in Osh, to drink in all the scents, sounds, and sights that I could possibly take with me.

Mark came to visit three days before I moved. We spent a full day with Shavkat, Habib and Faruh exploring two caves near Aravan. For the first time, I saw some of the famous ancient rock drawings I’d heard so much about.

Mark and I made fajitas for the family, and on our last night, Nigora made us the apple cobber I’d taught her to make and her family likes so much. On the morning I left, I headed to the airport in tears. It was helpful to know that I’d be able to return a few weeks later for a seminar. I could be reassured that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d see them. And I was able to leave half of my belongings there, making the move a bit easier.

The view from the plane before landing in Bishkek was a bit depressing – dull, brown, post-harvested fields stretched out under a cold, cloudy sky. We were taken to the hotel where I spent my first week.

During the work week, I searched for an apartment. Mark was able to join me and got a tour of living options in the Bishkek capital. I worked during the day, adjusting to the new office and team, and spent my evenings with Mark. One evening we were able to attend a performance put on by an experimental Kyrgyz group. Even though it was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand anything, the excellent costumes, vocals, and the incorporation of traditional music in all aspects of the performance made it very enjoyable.

On the weekend, we took a trip to Bokonbaevo, a town of 14,000 on the southeastern end of Issyk-Kul. There, I showed Mark the beautiful clear waters and we joined a father-son team on horseback to go hunting with golden eagles. That was a spectacular experience. We rode over bare, rocky terrain, looked over white mountains, over the blue waters of Issyk-Kul stretching to the horizon, and to the red cliffs in the distance. Always ahead of us, were two men, each carrying a large, heavy eagle on his arm. It was a timeless experience. Though they unmasked the birds several times and even let them fly, unfortunately they didn’t catch anything. Despite that, the experience was still well worth it. When we returned to the hunter’s home, we were allowed to hold the heavy birds on our leather-gloved arms. Then we joined the family for a wonderful tea of homemade bread, butter, apricot jam and apples. Fox skins hung on the wall behind us.

The same day Mark left, I moved into my new apartment. It’s a good find, a 20-minute walk to work, located near a market and near the health club where I work out. The owner recently did repairs to modernize it and I’m his first tenant. It’s the perfect size for me – a living room, bedroom, small kitchen and bathroom. And the price is right - $250 a month, or $300 including utilities and cleaning services. It’s bright, clean and cozy. But very lonely in comparison with my living arrangements in Osh. I’d gladly walk outside in the rain to use the toilet if it meant I had people to share my dinner with in the evenings.

If I didn’t love Osh so much, Bishkek would be easy enough to get used to. It really is a pleasant city – green, relatively clean, easily walkable, and populated by friendly people. All kinds of little things surprise me, from seeing women driving cars (which almost never happens in Osh), to the softness of the toilet paper, the way the cars usually stop at stop lights, the vast selection in the shops, the street sweepers, and the garbage scavengers (which despite the poverty, I rarely saw in Osh). One reason I may not have seen scavengers in Osh is that we barely had any garbage there. Paper was burned in the stove for heating, cooking and preparing the banya, organic material was fed to neighboring livestock, bottles and containers were reused and there wasn’t much of other types of garbage. I find it quite difficult here to throw away my paper or my vegetable rinds knowing that plenty of stoves or goats could put them to good use. Unfortunately, there aren’t any nearby in my apartment complex.

There have been a couple of incidents that brought a smile to my face and made me feel a little bit like I did in Osh. One evening, on the way home, I stopped at the market. Three Kyrgyz men wearing kalpaks serenaded the stall-keepers, playing an accordion and two traditional Kyrgyz instruments. The music was lively, passerbys handed the musicians money, and the entrepreneur being serenaded prepared a small bag of whatever they sold (cookies and candy, fruit, vegetables) to give them. At the end of a song, the musicians cupped their hands and led people in a short prayer before moving on.

I knew it was part of Ramadan tradition for children to go around and sing and for people to give them small amounts of money to make them go away. I heard them often during my final days in Osh. It’s kind of like a 30-day Halloween. But I didn’t know that adults could do the same thing nor that they could make the rounds and sing so professionally.

In my neighborhood, I was happy to see a truck pull up outside my apartment building on Saturday morning. Crates filled with onions, beans, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and garlic surrounded it, while piles of pumpkins, squash and bags of onions filled the cab.

“Do you come here every day?” I asked the heavyset, aproned woman who was urging the crowd of buyers to take more, comparing her low prices with those at the market.

“Only on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” she said. “This all comes from our field and we have a lot of work collecting everything.”

I stocked up on all kinds of vegetables and spent just over a dollar. Knowing I could have fresh produce almost delivered to my doorstep each Saturday from a nearby farm was a definite plus to life in the capital. It brought the rural life closer than I expected.

In matters more pressing to the general population, there have been some large “meetings,” (protests) in the capital, following the killing of a third politician. He was shot when he went to a prison riot, where prisoners were protesting their living conditions. His brother thinks that the Prime Minister, Kulov, was somehow involved in his death, and is organizing protests to force him to resign.

Kulov, a northerner, brings northern support to the southern President. If he were to go, it would be a big blow to stability.

I admit I don’t pay as much attention to the political maneuverings as I should. Unfortunately, despite the seeming development in Bishkek and rise of an upper class here, the political instabilities remain. The potential remains for the situation to change at any time. I just hope that whatever happens, it will not be at the expense of the people outside of politics who are trying to work and build a life for their families.

Monday, October 10, 2005

A Wedding During Ramadan

This evening Nigora’s niece got married. Nigora went to her stepbrother’s in the afternoon to help prepare food, and Shavkat went to eat. Earlier the afternoon, they’d gone to the market together, where they bought a carpet to present as a gift and some small wrapped cakes to serve to guests.

When they returned, Shavkat seemed pleased. “I wasn’t expecting many people, giving that it’s Ramadan,” he said. “But there were a lot of guests. About 200. We all sat and ate. The only difference from a usual wedding was that there was no music. That’s forbidden during Ramadan. But after a while, people starting singing themselves. And then we saw the bride and groom off in a bus to the groom’s house.”

This evening, only men were invited as guests. Tomorrow, a group of invited women, including Nigora, will go to the couple’s new home for a meal.

Nigora was under the impression that civil registration of marriage was completely forbidden during Ramadan. She was surprised to hear that they would register the marriage at ZAGS (the marriage house). I did see one wedding party moving down a central road the other day. As usual, the cars were covered with brightly covered ribbons. But they moved slowly and strangely silently, more like a funeral procession than the typical loud, honking wedding parade.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

My Last Free Weekend

Shavkat is just in heaven with his new car. Yesterday he went and put the car in his name and got new license plates. For the few moments he wasn’t in the car, he played jazz music from the car radio.

“I’ve gone all over the city today and I can barely notice any difference in the gas,” he said. “The car runs really well, so well.”

“Now Shavkat will never get upset because the gas will never end,” Nigora laughed.

The boys took advantage of it. Habib officially became a university student yesterday. He was running late for the ceremonies and again for the dinner. Both times he said, “Dad, I’m running late. Since the Tico doesn’t take any gas, could you drive me?”

“The children trap him with his own words,” Nigora said. “It’s tough to be a dad.”

Shavkat grumbled but was happy to have an excuse to drive somewhere.

As part of his induction ceremony as a student, Habib participated in a comedy route. Shavkat and Nigora were disappointed to not have been invited.

“There were only students there,” Habib said.

“But some of my friends were invited to their children’s events,” Shavkat complained.

“That’s a totally different event. Our jokes wouldn’t be funny to anyone except students.”

“You could have at least invited Faruh,” Nigora said quietly.

“There were no outsiders at all!” Habib insisted. I remained quiet but took his parents side. I would have also found it interesting to come.

Now that Habib had his party at the café (the famous 250 som expense), Nigora joked to me yesterday afternoon that finally he would be relieved from reminders of how much he spent. But at dinner, while Habib was still out, Shavkat brought it up again. As soon as he said 250 som, Nigora and I started laughing.

“We thought this would be the end for poor Habib,” Nigora said. “But you are still talking about it!”

He had been commented about the apple cobbler I’d made them for dessert from the buckets of apples they’d purchased on our last trip to Nookat.

“I was just saying,” he smiled, “that they spend 250 som and I bet they don’t eat like this. I can’t even imagine what they could spend 250 on.”

This morning the whole family sat out on the patio for breakfast. As usual, we sat crosslegged on mats on the floor.

“It will be so nice for you in Bishkek,” Nigora said. “You’ll be able to sit at a real table with chairs.”

I didn’t agree. In Bishkek I won’t have anyone to share my meals with. I won’t be able to look out at the ripening fruit on the quince tree in the courtyard, to see apples growing off another tree branch, to watch roses wither as the cold sets in. I won’t be able to sit in the cool fresh air, cupping a mug of hot tea, and relating the news of the tea. It will be clean and comfortable and sterile, but not interesting.

Nigora’s spy work paid off and is her niece is to be married. Unusually, she’s going to get married during Orozoo (Ramadan). The groom’s family doesn’t want to wait until after Ramadan, saying it will be too cold then. That means that they will just have a small, modest ceremony at home, inviting men on Monday and women on Tuesday.

“Because it’s being held in the home and there is not so much room, they can only invite a very specific number of people. It’s not like a typical Uzbek wedding.”

Shavkat said that doing it this way reduces expenses significantly.

I asked Nigora if they’d found out about the groom’s first wife.

“Of course, no one can no for sure. But people say that she is living with another man in Russia.”

“Has the groom filed for divorce?”

“He has submitted all the papers to court. But it can’t be done without her signature, next time she returns.”

“Did someone call her and tell her that he’s marrying?”

“I think so.”

It could be pretty unpleasant for the new wife to have the first wife suddenly show up and demand her place back.

“Is your niece excited?” I asked.

“Not especially. Because this isn’t love. He’s just an acquaintance. But still, she’s getting ready.”

Sounds a bit depressing to me.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Tico in the Yard

Shavkat bought a Tico from his neighbor yesterday, for about $2,000. It’s a tiny little white machine, like a little bug. He’s so excited that he spend much of the morning sitting in the car, with a friend of his in the passenger seat, talking. It’s like a child receiving a new toy.

“I’m off to register the car in my name,” he said. “It seems it runs really well!”

Knowing that I’m soon leaving, I listen to the sounds and see the images of Osh with sadness, knowing it’s unlikely that I’ll live here again in the future. I hear the haunting wail of the women calling “Airan!” in the morning, the sound of Nigora chopping on the cutting board, the noises of children playing out on the street, the sound of Lutfulo’s video games through my door, the sight of a middle-aged, distinctive, Kyrgyz legless man sitting in a wheelchair on a street corner, holding a baby.

I was supposed to go to Uzbekistan for the first time next week. But the combination of my move and my boyfriend’s passport and visa difficulties mean that I’ll have to wait for that.

Apparently, the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington, DC moved, but they didn’t bother to update their visa application form with their new address. So Mark sent off his passport and money order to a black hole. It hasn’t been seen since.

Luckily, with a large expenditure of money, he was able to get a new passport quickly and buy a new ticket to Kyrgyzstan. He’ll get to Osh on Friday, just in time to see me move three days later.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shavkat Loses His Job

Today Shavkat went to work and was told that since his geological company hasn’t found any gold in the area, there will be no major operations in the near future. He was told to consider himself free until spring.

So not only does he lose his $150 a month salary, they are losing the $180 a month I pay them. Together, that’s a tough hit. But now Shavkat is fully in support of Nigora’s new business venture.

“He doesn’t think it’s very likely I’ll have much success though,” she said. “He’s not very respectful of trade. He’s spent all his life working with tourists, alpinists and geologists and has become a sort of wild person.”

Today they spoke to the person who owns the land in an area where they are interested in selling and tomorrow he will show them a good spot.

Tonight for dinner we had a wonderful Uzbek corn soup, with little cobs of unsweet maize inserted in the soup, together with corn kernels, potatoes and small chunks of meat. That was followed by a late season watermelon that I brought home. We sat out on the porch, people coming and eating whenever they arrived. Together, we caught up on each other’s news and listened to the sound of the mosque calling worshippers to prayer from far off in the dark sky. I’m really going to miss those moments.

We’re now in the third day of Ramadan. I don’t notice it so much since I’m not fasting this year. I thought it started on the 5th of the month and it turns out it started on the 4th.

Nigora held the fast for one day. She said that the neighbor women were all planning to fast and were having a contest to see who could lose the most weight. Faruh also lasted for one day. Shavkat bragged about how he could go nine days without eating, but didn’t last a single day on the fast. No one at work is fasting.

There seem to be a less buyers at the food market during the day and I try to not eat conspicuously out in the open in the day. But other than that, it hasn’t had much impact on my life here.

Today I got home with the police officer/taxi driver who has taken me home several times before. I came right out aerobics into the taxi in my shorts, which I know is culturally borderline, but I’m too lazy to change back into pants just for the ride back home.

Obviously, this driver hadn’t had many passengers in short shorts before and he asked all kinds of questions about aerobics and what type of body I thought was attractive. Then he said, “You should be careful. Someone could steal you.”

“That’s illegal,” I said. “It’s against the laws of Kyrgyzstan. You’re a policeman. You know the laws.”

“Yes, but it happens.”

“Do people ever come in and complain about a kidnapping?” I asked.


“Do you help them?”


“What do you do?”

“First we listen to the situation and try to understand what happened.”

“Does it ever happen that you put a man in jail for kidnapping a woman?”


“How often?”

“Not very. If people fight the case through the end, it’s possible to put someone in jail. But usually people don’t follow it through until the end and it’s very rare for someone to end up in jail.”

There are several reasons for this. A big one, I’d guess, is pressure from family members and neighbors who think kidnapping is OK. Another, I would venture, is the unsupportive atmosphere they are likely to receive among the almost all male police force, many of whom accept kidnapping as a local tradition.

Today as I left aerobics, I walked by the wrestlers and was surprised to see at least three girls there. Two had their arms locked together and were busy trying to throw each other on the mat.

This morning as I biked to work, I saw a boy on a donkey carrying a large cart load of hay. A foreign car was behind him on the narrow road and was unable to pass the donkey. So, instead of accepting the situation and waiting a bit, the car pulled right behind the cart and honked several times, as if the boy could make the donkey go faster. I realized that I’d be unlikely to see many scenes that day in a typical day in Bishkek.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Joy of a New Computer

This evening I asked Reshat, our guard, how he is doing.

“Excellent,” he said, with enthusiasm.

That was the second time he’s answered that way. He seems to be truly happy.

“Why?” I asked.

“I have a new computer and life is wonderful,” he said.

He bought his computer, a Pentium 4, on credit he got from FINCA. I was surprised when he came and asked for a letter verifying his salary. He makes only about $30 a month at this job, plus an equivalent amount at another job as a guard. I wondered why he needed a computer and how he could pay for it.

“I’m studying at home to be a programmer,” he said. “I don’t have enough money to take classes, but I have a book and I teach myself at home. In the future, I can do computer consulting for you.”

I was really impressed by his motivation and initiative. And I thought it was a really neat thing to be able to get credit for a computer.

A few days later, our office assistant, Elmira, said she had also applied for credit to buy a computer.

“My two younger brothers want a computer so badly. So I decided to get one for them.”

Again, her salary is low and almost everything will go to paying for this computer. I don’t think it would be so great if she was getting credit for a TV or for a vacation to Turkey. But the computer seems to provide the opportunity for education and for developing skills, which will hopefully offer this guard and our assistant’s school-age brothers better opportunities in the future.

Move from Osh?

I just heard today that I may be moved from Osh in the next week or two. That of course makes me very sad. I’ve become close to my local family here and I’ve made as much of a home as I suppose one can in southern Kyrgyzstan. I love my work, the people and the town and really don’t want to leave.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Family news

Habib has been named class leader. He replaces a girl who was originally named the leader, then failed to fulfill her duties.

He was proud of his new position. His responsibilities include negotiating with teachers on behalf of classmates and serving as the liaison between students and administrators.

“Do other students respect that position or do they get jealous?” I asked.

“They’ll be jealous,” the quiet Lutfulo piped in. “You’ll have nothing but problems. Why did you put yourself in that position?”

“I won’t have any problems,” Habib said. “There are basically only three active people in my class. One was the girl who used to be leader and the other agreed to be the deputy. Half the students don’t know Russian and the rest don’t care.”

Nigora was proud. “They usually choose the smartest person in the class to be the class leader,” she said. She looked at Lutfulo. “Lutfulo is even smarter. Why aren’t you class leader?” she asked him.

“I don’t want those problems,” he said. But more likely, he probably lacks the outgoing personality needed for the leader.

Nigora and Shavkat are seriously looking into buying a selling space at the market. They went and found that prices had increased from 10,000 ($250) to 15,000 ($375) som in the last month alone.

“We’re thinking of buying a couple of selling places. Nigora can sell from one and we can hold onto the others and sell them in a few months,” Shavkat said.

His geological company is low on work right now. They are shutting down one operation. He makes $150 a month on a retainer basis, which isn’t bad by local standards. But he considers it a pittance. Now that he has more time though, and less income generating opportunities, he seems to be more supportive of Nigora’s venture.

I’m hoping she goes through with it and that it’s successful.

There has been a lot of talk about money lately at the dinner table. In September, the family spent almost $1,000 – largely on repairing Shavkat’s car after his accident and on entering Habib into the university. That’s quite a large amount and they felt the sting. Habib recently asked for $5 to go to a party at a restaurant with his classmates. This $5 has been discussed and joked about almost nightly.

“Habib is our most expensive child,” Nigora said. “He always seems to need money. Lutfulo on the other hand never asks for it.”

“Sitting at a café for $5?” Shavkat repeatedly asked in awe. “Where do they think they get this kind of money?”

“It’s only one time,” Habib said.

“Yes, once now. Then it will be New Years, then Men’s Day, Women’s Day, student’s day, some other kind of holiday.”

The family is not wealthy, but they are comfortable by local standards. The fact that they have a sit-down toilet (even though you have to go outside to get to it) and the ability to take a hot shower daily (even though that requires a walk in the cold as well) is pretty nice by local standards.

One evening we had a talk about bride stealing.

“Everybody talks about it, but I don’t know of anyone who has stolen somebody,” Habib said, with teenage derision. “That only happens in the mountains.” This was just after he said he expected 75% of the girls in his class to get married before graduation.

I told him of the several cases I’d come across in the year I’d been in Osh, including our own staff members stealing each other.

The whole family, and especially Nigora, really looks down on the practice. But they are Uzbeks and the Uzbeks don’t practice bride stealing.

“If the Kyrgyz can be faulted for bride stealing,” she said, “our weakness is that we often marry relatives. Luckily, my family didn’t allow that. But Shavkat’s family did. And he has a sister who married a cousin. All three of her children are abnormal. They got certified as invalids. They look normal from the exterior, but even when they were babies, they lacked the ability to tell when they were full. They would just eat constantly, then throw it up later.”

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Water Gushing from a Rock

Today the family piled in Shavkat’s Niva and drove out to a waterfall and tourist area called Ap-shirata. The older boys had classes and Shavkat was tinkering with the car as always. So we didn’t get going until one. I didn’t think we’d make it – given that it was a 2.5-hour drive there. But we ended up having a nice afternoon.

We drove past Nookat and toward Kyzyl-Kia, then turned off and continued another 10-15 miles on a much rougher road. Corn husks were gathered into piles like haystacks outside of Osh, the fields have been visibly cleared, and the mountains on either side of us were a dull gold.

The peach trees were already red and orange and the poplars had begun to turn a golden brown, the same color as the drying eaves of tobacco hung from them.

On the way, when we stopped to let the car cool down, we picked and ate apples right off of a blooming tree.

“I’m going to show this to the prosecutor’s office,” I joked with Habib as I photographed him stealing apples.

“This isn’t America,” he said, laughing.

Nigora told me that neighbors are allowed to pick fruit from trees that hang over the border of their property. “Because the neighbors have to deal with things like leaves falling off the tree,” she said. And the same thing with trees that face the road. “Anyone walking by has the right to take some.” And in the same way, I understood, we as passersby were allowed to help ourselves as well.

We passed a run-down tourist resort, then drove through the gates. We entered a canyon, with looming rocks looking down on us from either side. Suddenly, it appeared – a bright white gush of water pouring from a hole in the rock. It fell down, ran through tunnel, then crashed down upon a bowl, spraying water down a pile of rocks. It fell into a crystal clear pool at the base before running into the river that cut through the canyon.

There was a fenced-off grotto filled with pellucid water, a natural mineral spring, and several staircases going up different parts of the rock and offering different views of the scenery. As we walked along, we heard a hissing sound at our feet and saw water bubbling up from the ground.

We drove the rest of the way through the canyon, following a rushing white stream. Suddenly, the foreboding rock walls disappeared and we entered a valley. We continued to follow the river, but the mountains were further back, gentler sloping, and dotted with trees.

Choosing a place along the riverbank, we had a picnic of brown round bread, grapes, suzma (a white, thick dairy product from the mountains), picked cabbage and eggplant, rolls, hardboiled eggs and tea. Then the boys went for a walk while I read and Nigora walked along the riverbank, looking for herbs. She returned with a bag full of wild mint and another herb that she can use to fill ravioli.

Until we left, we hadn’t seen any other visitors. “There used to be a lot of people here,” Shavkat said. “Lots of people came to take wedding pictures here, especially Kyrgyz.”

On the way back, we passed two cars. The passengers seemed to be searching for the same things Nigora was. Several of them carried handfuls of greens.

An elderly Uzbek man sitting on a rock stopped Shavkat as we drove past. They spoke in Uzbek and Shavkat reluctantly drove off.

“What did he want?” I asked.

“He wanted gas.”


“It’s become expensive now and he wondered if I could give him some. He said they’d run out. But how could he have run out? They were from Nookat, which is just nearby, and they know what the road is like. If they were from Uzbekistan, I would have given it to them, but I told him we had a long way to go and we could run out ourselves.”

He told me that now when police stop people, either they want money or gas. Gas is now 22.5 som (56 cents) a liter. It used to be about 19. Shavkat is planning on buying a Tico tomorrow, the $2,000 matchbox-sized little Korean cars that are so popular in Osh. They are very gas efficient and great for going around town. But if you get in an accident, you’re dead. He wants to use the Tico for going around town and the Niva only for travel to the mountains.

On the way back, we stopped when Shavkat saw three dirty young boys selling buckets of apples on the side of the road. He bought them all.

“This is the very cheapest place to buy apples,” he said. In Osh, they cost 8-10 som per kilogram. Here I get a whole bucket for 35 som.”

“How many kilos are in a bucket?”

“Seven or eight.”

Nigora is tired from the past few days of non-stop canning. But as soon as we got home, Shavkat said to everyone, “Take any good apples that you want. The rest of them we’ll use to make jam.” So Nigora now has her work cut out for her tomorrow.

“I guess Shavkat can’t take a rest from closing jars,” she said, good-naturedly.

This evening the electricity flicked on and off several times. I think back to the frequent losses of electricity and water I experienced last fall and am hoping to not go through that again. I can live without the electricity. Our stove is gas, my heat will come from a coal-burning stove, and I often have battery-power on my computer. But not having access to water is a real pain. I don’t realize how much I rely upon it until it’s gone.