Saturday, December 03, 2005

Saturday Night in the Dark

When my electricity went out this morning at 9 a.m., I didn’t think much of it. It was daylight and I expect it would last an hour or two, a few hours at most. So I didn’t say anything, even when my landlord stopped by.

When I returned home at 5:30, just as the last light was fading, I still didn’t have electricity. But I could see that everyone else in the building did. Only then did I realize how poorly prepared I was. I had one little lantern with a fading battery. No candles, no flashlights.

I opened the drapes and tried to do a bit of housework in the last strands of light. Now, at 6:30, it’s already black. I’m sitting in the darkness, using up the battery on my laptop. When it runs out, I’ll lose this bright square of light and have nothing but a little glow from my cell phone to illuminate things.

What is there to do in this situation? Listen to my ipod, sleep, or get out of here. I’m waiting for my landlord to come over. After he does, I think I’ll try to find a café where I can spend the evening.

This was a busy week and I had little time to write. I came across some interesting characters, as usual, though. I met a nice couple who emigrated to Bishkek from Naryn a few years ago. The wife was 29. She’d just returned to graduate school and was teaching courses at the university. The husband, 34, sells cattle at one of the Bishkek cattle markets. Every week he rents a little Moskvich car, travels to cattle markets in surrounding villages, and returns to the city with FIFTEEN sheep bunched inside in the car! I try to imagine where he must sit.

They live in a small but warm two-room house. There was no furniture and a tiny black and white TV, about as large as my hand. They eat, sleep, and live on carpets spread across the floor. Next to the TV stood a statue of an eagle on a branch. Each week, when they received money, they put a bill into the small slot in the back.

“I don’t know how much we have, but at least 12,000 som ($300),” the wife told me. “We’ve been saving, for a TV and for furniture, for over a year.”

There has been a lot of publicity about rural people migrating to the capital, trying to steal land and demanding rights and services. I don’t know how or why this family came to Bishkek. But it was nice to see the earnestness with which they were trying to build a solid life for themselves and for their child. And I was surprised to see that they’d started their family so late by local standards.

One another interesting family was a couple who’d entered into what’s called a “citizen’s marriage” two years ago. That means that they live as though they are married, but they don’t formally register it. Both had children from their first marriages. The wife’s two children lived with them.

I asked the husband what he did for a living. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “It’s not legal. If you tell anyone, the tax inspectors will come right after me.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I said. (since I’m not including any identifying details, I am honoring my promise, even despite this blog tale)

He then led me to a shed outside the house and proudly opened the lock on the door. There, he had a whole series of contraptions made out of tin, tubes and buckets.

“This is where I make alcohol,” he said. “Once a week, I put it into bottles and sell it. I make a profit of over $300 a month.”

I thought about my neighbors in Osh. They also had a homemade alcohol production (called samagon). But they were much less cautious, inviting their customers to come right to their door to make their purchases, giving their dog reason to bark constantly at all the unexpected visitors.

I’ve started Russian lessons. Twice a week I meet with Iliana for an hour. It’s not enough for intensive improvement. But time is short and it’s good to have at least a little time each week to concentrate on learning something new.

Iliana runs a language school and she talked to me at length about one of her students, a Kyrgyz woman from the south of the country who is studying Russian.

“She’s 29 years old and is pregnant with her fourth child,” Iliana said. “She doesn’t want to have any more kids, but so far she’s had only girls and her husband insists on having a boy. She tells me that she doesn’t love him, that she doesn’t want to be with him, and that she doesn’t want to have any more children. She said that she’s having problems with her teeth because of all the pregnancies.

“I tell her that she needs to stand up to him and tell him to either choose between her health and having a ton of kids,” Iliana continued. “I tell her that she’s still young and she still has time to do something with her life. She always dreamed of getting a university education. But she was pressured to marry this man, a relative, by her family, and she did so right after high school. But now she’s committed to getting the education she couldn’t pursue before. She told me that after the baby she’ll sit home for one month, then will come right back to lessons. She wants to learn Russian and to go to the university.”

Iliana told me that women from the south are “deeply complexed.” She can’t understand why they have so many children.

I had asked her why kidney problems are so prevalent in Kyrgyzstan. She said it was because women have too many children. “After having a child, it takes at least three years to restore the vitamins to a woman’s body,” she said. “But these women are having a child every two years. They themselves are unhealthy, then of course they are giving birth to unhealthy children. I once yelled at an aunt who had already given birth to two mentally retarded children. Who needs these unhealthy children brought into the world? I asked her.”

Iliana herself is quite impressive. In her early 40s, she managed to go to London to study English for 2.5 years. While she was there, she got a job as a meeting services assistant for Price Waterhouse Coopers, making $12 an hour, enough to support her 16-year-old daughter to come study as well.

“People say that the best way to ensure your retirement is to spend on your child’s education,” she said. “You need to do that before you buy yourself a fur or a car. Then you hope that the child will buy it for you later.”

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