Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Trip to Illinois

During the holidays I took a short trip to Illinois. There I became acquainted with a new service – mobile notaries. We needed to have a document notarized and as always, were on the run. Instead of canceling our planned museum visit to go find a notary, we were able to call up a mobile notary, who would come to the museum on his bicycle to meet us. The service, including his signature, cost $5. And he showed up right on time. Very cool.

In Illinois, I took a Greyhound bus from Chicago to a rural town 1.5 hours away. I’ve taken enough Greyhounds in my life to know that the bus stations tend to be a collection point for the down and out in society. But it really disturbed me to see that on both the buses I took, a good 80 to 90 percent of the passengers were African American. That is in far disproportion to their actual representation in the population there and is a sign of their disproportionate overcrowding into the marginal segments of society.

Many people were overweight and unhealthy. At one 11:30 a.m. stop at a convenience store, the woman next to me ate Reeses Peanut Butter cups with a soda, the overweight woman across the aisle had a whole bag of junk, washing down Ritz Bitz with chocolate, and the man behind me crunched on Fritos while sipping a large soda.

While downtown Chicago is beautiful, the inner city areas where many of the passengers disembarked were run-down and depressing. They looked much worse than many areas of Kyrgyzstan.

It’s scary how in America, it’s possible for middle and upper class people to live with virtually no contact with these types of neighborhoods, with this type of life. It’s possible to almost forget that people live this way. And most people probably prefer to forget, because to admit such inequalities would be shameful.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Snow-free Christmas

It seems Kyrgyzstan is one of the only places in the world with a real winter, however mild. In Minnesota, the second coldest state after Alaska, there was no snow at all this Christmas. Luckily, the local ski slopes manufactured some snow themselves, so we were still able to pretend it was winter enough to go snowtubing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Chocolate for Men

This is a new product, Chocolate for Men, by Nestle that appeared on the Bishkek shelves shortly before the holiday. Just to be rebellious, I bought one for my fiancé, then ate it. On the inside, it has little stamped pictures of women crossed out, like a no smoking sign on each square. It costs 30% more than the same amount of gender-neutral chocolate. I’d be very interested in hearing how and why Nestle came up with this idea.

Interesting developments in Central Asia

It doesn’t seem right to be writing at 5:20 a.m., especially when I’ve been up for most of the night. I’m at the airport, on my way home for the holidays. If anything below doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

This afternoon I heard a squeal come from my Maria’s, my boss’s office. She soon came out. “The President of Turkmenistan has died!” she said, with a smile. She is Kyrgyz. A former Turkmen colleague of hers SMSed her the news.

“What do you expect will happen?” I asked.

“Hopefully some positive changes.”

A Turkmen friend of mine recently got married in a hurry to a Georgian, for fear that her government was soon going to pass a law banning marriages to foreigners. From what I’ve read about Turkmenistan, Turkmenbashi’s portrait was everywhere. I wonder how they are going to dispose of, or memorialize, his face.

In Kyrgyzstan, the entire cabinet has resigned. The government is without an executive branch, except for the President. Even Kulov, Bakiyev’s duo, has put in his resignation.

What I told Maria I didn’t understand what is going on, she said they are playing. “According to the new Constitution, the Parliament has the responsibility to form a government. But the rules are very complicated. The President and the Executive want to show that the parliament isn’t capable of forming a government. If they fail two times, then the President can dissolve Parliament.”

“And Bakiyev will remain alone in the government?”


“He is hitri,” I said, a Russian word that means clever, somehow weasel-like. It doesn’t have a good direct translation.

“Yes, he’s not very smart, but he’s very hitri.”

The Kyrgyz government just goes from one crisis to the next. It’s only just over a month since the almost November revolution. Clearly, the President is still bitter over the threat to his rule. And he’s determined to discredit Parliament wherever possible.

In other news, the irresponsibility of Americans is getting play in Parliament. An American employee of the Manas military base shot and killed a Kyrgyz truck driver at 3 p.m. one afternoon. He claimed the man was behaving aggressively. At 3 a.m. I’d understand. But at 3 p.m., it’s harder to argue. The government claims the shooter had just been transferred from Iraq two weeks earlier and was still in a state of excitement. General opinion seems to be there was no evident reason to shoot this man.

And at the same time, the case of an American who hit and killed a Kyrgyz with a car in July, but was protected by immunity, is being brought up by parliamentaries. They want to remove immunity from employees of the military base and hold people responsible for their actions.

The three-day disappearance of Jill Metzger, also an employee of the U.S. military base, still remains a mystery. A parliamentarian says she just went for a walk. The situation is fishy – a video surveillance camera shows her leaving the Tsum department store by herself and she apparently had hair dye stains on her hands when she was found. But she claims she was held by force and beaten. No one knows for sure what happened except her, and both she and the U.S. government are being strangely silent. If there was a risk to U.S. citizens, one would think they’d tell those of us living here what happened. This is only conjecture, but one theory I came across on the web is that she was kidnapped by someone from the nearby Russian military base (which is located in the town where she reappeared). The diplomatic discomfort that would cause could explain the silence.

Though Kyrgyzstan has a well-developed network of radio-called taxis, as well as plenty of on-street competition, it can still be hard to reliably order a taxi.

Recently, I called a company at 7 and asked for a taxi to pick me up at 8:30.

“Call a bit later,” I was told.


“There are no cars available now.”

“I don’t need one now. I need one at 8:30. And I’m going to be on the phone until then. I’d like the taxi to be here when I get off.”

I could hear the dispatcher talking to her manager. “We can’t do that,” she said.

I said I’d call another company. Which I did. They took my order OK, but at 8:30, there was no taxi. I called again and they sent one out after the second call.

This evening I called at 10:15 and asked for a taxi at 10:45. At 10:45 there was no taxi. I called again.

“It’s already left,” the dispatcher told me. “It will be there in five minutes.”

So much for timeliness.

I’m very happy to be on my way home for the holidays. It’s too bad that I’ll miss my work holiday party, as well as the holiday celebrations I’m sure I could have experienced with my local friends. But it’s been too long since I’ve seen my loved ones and I’m really looking forward to the time with family and friends.

It should also be a productive trip. After two months of cross-oceanic wedding planning, we’re finally going to visit potential reception sites ourselves. Within a few days, we should have a definite date and location.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Spelling and passports

My friend Zhenya just called to ask me a word that rhymes with beak.

“Peak,” I said.

“How about silk?”


She said it was her son’s homework. That he’d done as much he could and she was helping him. But she didn’t know how to find these rhythms.

“What about look?” she asked.

At that point, I realized her son was being lazy.

“That’s easy,” I said. “Ask Algubek to try.”

I heard him make a halfhearted effort. But at 10:30 p.m., it was probably easier just to get his mom to do his homework. Rather than finish his homework for him, I gave her a suggestion.

“Have him write out the entire alphabet. Then go through it one letter at a time, replacing the first letter. Start with A. Aook. Nope. Then B. Book. There it is.”

She seemed to like that idea.

I must admit that getting calls asking me to find rhyming words for beak and silk is one of the things I like about living overseas. It’s unusual, unexpected, a little glimpse into what non-native English speakers spend their evenings doing.

Today Nigora turned in her application for an international Kyrgyz passport. The Kyrgyz have two passports – one for internal use, and a separate one for those who want to travel outside of the country. They weren’t accepting applications at all for the last two weeks. And the entire first week of January is going to be an official government holiday. So Nigora paid $150 for 8-day service, a huge amount of money for an average person in Osh.

But she needs the international passport in order to apply for a U.S. visa. And if she doesn’t get it, she can’t come to America. This is her once in a lifetime chance to see the West (she only saw Bishkek for the first time seven months ago).

In the period when the passport office wasn’t taking applications, she spent her days running around collecting any and all papers and documents that might be needed. In the evenings, she went over her checklist to make sure she’d done everything she could.

“At this point, nothing depends on me,” she said, after she’d collected everything she could. “It only depends on whether or not they’ll accept my application.”

We both feared that they might not. Or that they might angle for some kind of a bribe. I asked if she thought they were doing so.

“I don’t think so because everyone there is ready to offer money in order to get the passport they need. But they say they aren’t accepting applications, that they don’t have any passports available now.”

So we were both relieved when they took her application today and promised it back by the end of the month. I was more worried about her getting a Kyrgyz passport than I am about her getting a U.S. visa.

Given all the kind people who have shown me so much hospitality overseas in the past years, I’m very excited to finally be able to reciprocate and bring someone to my country who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to visit. I wanted to invite my Siberian friend Ayuna as well, but unfortunately she’s expecting to deliver a child in the same month I invited her to come.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Kazakhstan in daylight

I regularly fly in and out of Almaty, but since the flights always leave and arrive at the crack of dawn, until yesterday, I’d never seen Kazakhstan in daylight.

The scenery between the border and Almaty was pretty similar to what I could see in the lifting blackness – snow dusted golden steppes and plains, snowy peaks in the distance, scattered small towns.

It was dark by the time we got to Almaty, but cars filled the streets in an endless traffic jam and people walked and waited for buses home from work. We drove around for a long time looking for our destination. In that time, I noticed a lot of upscale cafes and restaurants, especially Asian, and very impressive New Year’s decorations and lighting. Trees glimmered with fine lights, blue and gold bulbs resembled sheets of illumination cascading from buildings and storefronts.

“You can really feel New Year’s here, can’t you,” my colleague Aizhana remarked.

“You can tell this is a big city, not a little town like Bishkek,” Maria said.

From Almaty we transferred into SUVs and headed up a mountain to the Chum Bulak resort. The roads were remarkably smooth and the driver seemed to enjoy swerving back and forth along the curves. Then we started to head uphill. At times, it seemed almost vertical. But the road remained smooth and well-maintained. Ahead of us stretched a yellow ribbon of the lighted path leading up the mountain. A sign indicated we had 3400 meters to climb, then others indicated the progress we’d made.

At the bottom of the mountain is a famous skating rink, called Medeo. Chum Bulak is supposed to be the best place in Kazakhstan for skiing. I brought my skis here to try it out, but it seems unlikely that there will be enough snow. From our lodge at the end of the road, a five hour path leads to a glacier. It would be possible to hike from here to Lake Issyk-Kul, over the mountains that separate the two countries.

I compare this place with the Kyrgyz resort, Kashka-Suu, where we held a seminar two winters ago. There, it was cold and basic. There was no skiing available at that time, no skating, and we weren’t allowed to go up the chairlift for a view. People shivered and several returned sick.

Here, I lucked out and ended up with my own room with a private bath, reliable electricity and hot water. The room is so warm that I have to open the window. Yes, I woke up last night to find a bat in my room. But besides that, it’s really nice and comfortable. And the food is fantastic – chicken breast with melted cheese and mushrooms, stir-fried vegetables, dried fruit platters, fish baked in tinfoil. I feel like a country hick marveling at life in the big city – except we are up in the mountains!

We’ve had little contact with the people, other than the drivers and resort service staff, but they seem quieter and more reserved than the Kyrgyz – few smiles, little small talk.

It’s been a busy month, between Osh, Kazakhstan, and soon, America. But I’m glad to have the chance to at glimpse at our large and rapidly developing neighboring country.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Departure from Osh

I spent the majority of the day trying to get out of Osh. My flight was delayed for hours due to the fog, which is a common occurrence in the winter.

The airport was busier than I’d ever seen it before. Cars packed the parking lot, the road that went nearest the entrance was blocked off, and crowds of people milled around. Near the front doors, people had set up tables and chairs outside and were grilling shashlik over coals, their breath mingling with the smoke from the grill.

“People are going to Hajj,” Malan said.

“They must have become more wealthy in the past year or two for so many to be flying.”

“Buses aren’t allowed this year. People can only go by air.”

He told me it had cost $700 to travel by bus, almost $1500 by plane.

“Who can ban buses from going? And why?”

“The head mullah in Kyrgyzstan banned them. The trip is too long and too difficult. Especially going through Russia, where they have a lot of problems at the border and the temperature is cold. Last year several old people died enroute due to the difficulties. So this year, they decided not to allow buses.”

I thought that made it harder for people to afford the trip. But he thought it was OK. He said that the rich Arabs used to feel sorry for the poor people who traveled such a long distance and in such discomfort by bus.

“They’d give them $10,000 or $20,000 as a source of assistance. But they’d hand it to the driver and he’d put it in his pocket. I’ve heard such stories,” Malan said in his singsong voice, that seems to take pride in the amount and breadth of his knowledge.

Malan is a great guy. I would have suspected him of being a spy sometime in his past life if I wasn’t convinced of how important it is for him to lead a life with a clean heart, without guilt or regret for what he engages in.

He doesn’t sit idly in his free time, but is always talking to people and finding things out, from modern farming techniques to what the current political intrigues are.

We passed a group of people gathered in the city. I asked what was going on and he didn’t know. A while later, the group had grown substantially larger.

“Malan, you know everything,” I said. “How can you not know what’s going on?”

“You know, that’s the prosecutor’s building,” he said. “I heard that there is a fight between two deputies. First they stripped one of his mandate and put the other one in. Now they are stripping the second. And those are probably people there to complain.”

He paused. “You know, if someone asked me to stand out in the cold to support a deputy, I wouldn’t do it because I have a full-time job. Those are people who don’t have enough to do. And right now it’s very easy to gather such people for a protest. But if we develop to the point at which people have enough work and they are well paid, they won’t be able to find people to stand around for them.”

He showed me the café where a deputy was recently shot, a popular traditional café on a central street.

According to Malan, the deputy was sitting with some people in a separate, private room that had a window looking out onto the back of the lot. Apparently he was sitting in front of the window. And the assassin shot him through the window.

“It was so clean that there was just a single, little hole in the window. And nobody even heard anything. Even the deputy didn’t realize he’d been shot in the back of the head. They say his last words were, ‘What, did somebody turn on the heat in here or something?’ then his head fell forward onto the table.”

“Was the killer caught?”

“No, and he never will be.”

The second week of December seems to be the start date for beginning New Year’s preparations in Bishkek. I hadn’t seen any signs of the holiday when I left one week ago. But today I returned to sights of people decorating trees, to happy new year’s banners hanging across shops, and kiosks selling small plastic trees and brightly colored tinsel.

I have a very short time here. Only enough to unpack, do a quick load of laundry, and repack for a departure tomorrow to Almaty. I’ll be spending three nights in Kazakhstan at a seminar. While I’m a bit homesick for my apartment, I’ve never actually spent a night in Kazakhstan and I’m looking forward to a little exploration of my neighboring country. And I’m especially looking forward to skiing on Sunday at Kazakhstan’s premier ski resort. I’ll have to see whether it’s able to compare with Karakol.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Kara-Suu traders

Today I made a trip to Kara-Suu, the most important southern bazaar, on the border with Uzbekistan. It’s a place of contrasts. While it is an incredible generator of wealth and many average people have made their fortunes there, it’s also a very drab and depressing place.

When heading in that direction, the air becomes dusty, the fog clouds the sky and covers the land. A woman in a black headscarf and a long black coat crossed the road, in between snow-dusted fields. The fog, the emptiness, the long woman in black created a lonely sight.

Today was wholesale day, and car after car passed us loaded beyond imagination with boxes, panes of glass, rolls of blankets or fabric, tied bundles of clothing. The tires looked like they’d collapse under the weight, not to mention the roofs of the old Soviet cars.

“The fog and the bad weather don’t bother them,” our driver, Malan, said. “Business continues.”

He told me they were Uzbek traders who come to Kyrgyzstan to buy Chinese goods. They are cheaper here because of the high tariffs Uzbekistan puts on imports.

“And there are women inside those cars too. Imagine how they can fit!” He said that woman dominated the trade business because they can fight with border guards more effectively than men.

“It’s all illegal, but they find a way to get it in. They’ve been sitting there since 3 a.m. this morning. And then they have to sell it secretly in Uzbekistan. I talk to them sometimes and they tell me it’s not like here where people can sell openly.”

“Good thing you ended up on this side of the border,” I said.

“If I ended up there, I’d leave. I couldn’t live like that. People in Uzbekistan used to live better than us. But not now.”

He told me most of these traders used what’s called a black entrance – a house that is located right on the border. “The front door can be in Kyrgyzstan and the back gate opens into Uzbekistan. The owner of the house pays the border guards a certain amount so they look the other way. They act like they don’t see anything. Then the owner offers traders to allow them to transport their goods through his property for 200 som ($5).”

In the past few months, now that more promising banks are working in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve been encouraging my local friends and colleagues to think about their futures and save, even if a little. This goes very much against the mentality generated by the bank failure and the devalued currency of the 1990s – spend all you have or at least buy some of value.

Investments, especially in real estate and cattle, are a common and good way of saving money here. But plenty of people don’t have enough to buy real estate, and don’t have the time or space to raise cattle. For them, it’s a shame to have money sitting under the mattress when banks are offering 10 to 11 percent annual interest on deposits.

Also, with the very low levels of pensions offered, which are virtually impossible to live on, young people need to start thinking of their futures in a way their predecessors didn’t have to.

Today I brought some brochures about savings products to the office. Malan, our driver, Baktigul, our office manager, and Valentina, the guard and cleaner, looked at them with interest. Then they began a spirited discussion amongst themselves about what was the best way to save. The previous day, after we’d discussed savings over our chicken dinner, Baktigul calculated how much she’d have if she saved with interest over 20 days.

“It was quite a large sum,” she said, raising her hand to her neck to indicate it would be more than enough to meet her needs.

Malan put 70,000 som he’d saved into a piece of land where he hopes to eventually build a home for his retirement. “Within a few months of buying it, it wouldn’t go for less than 100,000 som. That was my good investment!”

Baktigul wondered if she’d do better than a deposit if she were to buy a calf on credit and have her parents raise it into a cow, then sell it at a profit.

I listened from a distance and thought it was great to hear three people, of three different nationalities, and three different decades, talking openly about how to best invest and prepare for the future. They all have dreams and I hope they are able to reach them.

Tonight is my seventh night in Osh. It’s been wonderful to catch up with the family, with staff, to see the city again, to feel its vibrant current. But in these kind of accommodations, it’s much tougher in the winter than the summer. I’ve actually been longing for my apartment, wishing I could have the Osh city and company with my Bishkek living standards.

I’m tired of going to sleep worried that I’m drugging myself with carbon monoxide, with timing my activities based on the availability of heating, electricity, or an indoor toilet, of sleeping till the very last minute because it’s just too cold to get up and do anything in the morning. I’m looking forward to a hot shower, to my washing machine, to the temperature-controlled climate, to the indoor toilet.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Surprise Chicken Dinner

On Friday morning, Baktigul, our office manager, asked if I wanted her kill a chicken for dinner.

“We still have 12 and the feed isn’t worth the cost of keeping them,” she said. “We could kill one and have a soup in the office tonight.”

“Fine,” I said. I didn’t care too much either way.

When I returned to the office after the meeting, she opened the door holding a goosebumped, defeathered chicken corpse in her hand. The neighbor, Valentina, a middle-aged woman who works part-time as the cleaner and security guard, was helping her.

“The problem is that the electricity is still out and it takes a lot of gas to boil water with the generator,” Baktigul said. “So we’re waiting for the electricity to come back on, though it means dinner might be late.”

“OK, whatever,” I said, feeling this was definitely not an area for me to intervene.

When I took Malan to a meeting, Baktigul made arrangements with him to pick up some vegetables on the way back. A while later she called me.

“Do you want to invite your family to the office to eat?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, continuing to go along with the plan. If she thought there would be enough for an extra five people, fine.

When I returned in the evening, I brought some salads, fruit and pastries I’d picked up on the way. I found a large table set with a white lace tablecloth. A warm aroma of boiling broth filled the air. Malan diced dill and cilantro while Valentina and Baktigul completed the finishing touches, setting out the boxes of juice and round, yeasty lepushkas Malan brought.

By the time the family filed in the door, it looked as nice as a restaurant banquet. Baktigul set a plate of boiled potatoes and carrots in the center. Another plate held the chicken, cut into small pieces. We each received a steaming bowl of broth, into which we could put whatever we wanted. There was grated carrot salad, a red bean and onion salad, a cabbage salad, and a salad with grated beets, walnuts and mayonnaise. We had a chocolate-covered wafer cake, a selection of chocolate cookies, and bow-shaped pastries filled with cottage cheese and apples.

After all that work, the chicken turned out a little rubbery. But everything else was delicious. And best of all was the conversation. Me, Malan, Baktigul, Valentina, Nigora, Shavkat, Lutfulo, Habib and Faruh sat at the table for three hours laughing and chatting.

Valentina, who appears Russian, has a son, daughter-in-law and grandson in Moscow. She and her husband would like to move to Moscow, but can’t sell their house for enough money to buy a flat in Russia. Her son’s wife is Kyrgyz and the girl’s parents had been against the marriage because they wanted her to marry a Kyrgyz.

Baktigul, a Kyrgyz, is facing the same problem. She has a Tatar boyfriend whom she hopes to marry next year. But her parents are against it because of his ethnicity.

In the U.S., attention is usually focused on racism, overt or subconscious, among Caucasians. But I don’t hear much about racism coming from other ethnic groups, though it can be just as common and virulent.

“The Kyrgyz don’t think of it as racism,” Baktigul told me, “but tradition.”

Valentina agreed. “Whatever ethnic group a woman marries into, that becomes her group and she’s expected to adopt their customs and traditions, losing her own.”

She said it got so bad with her son that the girl’s relatives beat him up. I don’t know how they eventually went through with the wedding.

“Maybe our children will be free to choose their own spouses and for their ethnicity not to matter,” Baktigul said. “But today, it’s still the parents who make the decision.” I couldn’t help crossing my fingers that she’d find a way to marry the person she loved, and not give him up because of the group he was born in to.

“The Uzbeks are even worse than the Kyrgyz in trying to keep their children within their ethnic group,” Nigora, an Uzbek, said. “But all of us, if we look far enough back, are all mixed to a certain extent. My family is mixed with the Uighurs.”

“And I’m Arab!” Malan, an Uzbek, said, pointing to his chest with pride.

We talked about the people we knew, the news we’d heard, about the development and future of the city. We gossiped, debated and laughed until 9:30, which tends to feel like midnight in winter Osh.

I returned home with the family in their little white Tico, which feels like riding in a tiny plastic model car. They gave me the front seat. Nigora and the three boys somehow squeezed into the back, which comfortably seats two. We puttered along the bumpy, dark streets to home. Laying in bed, near the warmth of my coal fire, I looked forward to a calm, quiet, weekend.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Coming Back to Osh

It’s both good and hard to be home. The company can’t be beat and the evening conversations around the dinner table are enlightening and missed. In the past two nights, we’ve had plov, boiled duck, homemade raspberry jam, home-baked round loaves of bread, and fried apple pastries. We’ve talked about tourism, about the political situation, about the educational system, about Uzbekistan, about Kyrgyz/Uzbek relations. They are all kind, energetic, thoughtful and insightful.

But I’ve definitely gotten unused to the simple living conditions. Last night I ate dinner, indoors, with a blanket over my shoulders and another over my head. It was so cold walking out, across the icy pathway, to the bathroom, that it’s easy to skip on teeth-brushing or other evening rituals, with the goal of just getting back inside where it’s warm. Knowing that the bathroom was available to me until morning made it seem that much more desirable.

My paper-hoarding habits returned, with my seeing any possible piece of unneeded paper as a potential source of heat.

The stove and heavy blankets kept me warm at night, but by morning the fire had already died. And I needed to go back out in the cold to take a shower. Hot water poured from the spigot, but the tiles below, on which I went barefoot, were frigid.

I stayed under the spray for a long time, dreading the thought of having to drip in the unheated bathhouse, then walk back outside across the courtyard to my now unheated room.

As soon as I got back to my room, I crawled under the covers, finding bed the warmest place. Nigora came in to bring me tea and soon after carried in the small space heater. I felt bad causing her to worry.

For the first time I went into the regional administration building today, the hulking white square structure across from the Lenin statue. A long strip of cloth, which looked like a rag, ran down the front steps. A similarly ragged cloth lay across the four flights of steps leading upstairs. I suppose it was to protect the carpets from wet feet. But it looked tacky.

The building itself was nice, with high ceilings, red carpets under the rags, and large golden nameplates on the doors. But it smelled like a stolovaya, with the scent of cabbage and lamb fat wafting through the halls.

I saw many of our staff. And it was especially rewarding to see the people I’d hired myself in the past 1-2 years, as well as other inexperienced staff I’d worked with and trained, now in positions of responsibility.

“The results increased by three times since I’ve been in charge,” one man in his mid-20s said with evident pride.

Another young woman from a rural area, who looked quiet and modest in a headscarf, I know is actually extremely intelligent. She got a scholarship to a high-quality Turkish university in Bishkek, speaks fluent English, and is now in charge of a team of one.

“I’ve selected another person who is now in training and we’ll soon get one more employee,” she said, her eyes glowing at her team’s growth.

I could see their confidence, their leadership, and their professional development in their appearance and demeanor, not to mention their dialogue. Best of all, a market for such people, with experience, knowledge and skills, is starting to develop. While before, only connections mattered. Now, some employers are clearly willing to pay for the people who can do the job, whether they have connections or not. This trend ensures a promising future, professionally and financially, for our staff and I’m happy to see them gain such opportunities.

It’s cold in Osh now and there is not much to enjoy in terms of the scenery. Like usual, it’s the people who really make Osh the welcoming and colorful place it is.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Ski Season Opens

December 3, 2006

For some reason, I haven’t had much motivation to write lately. Maybe it’s a lack of time, maybe a lack of exciting events, maybe I’m losing the eye for detail that happens with prolonged time in one place. But I’m feeling like I don’t have much to say.

Today I welcomed in the ski season with a trip to Tuguz Bulak, a ski base about an hour outside Bishkek.

“Is there enough snow?” I asked Boris, the trip organizer.

“Of course, there is lots!” he said.

He was lying. While the chairlift was running, the lower slopes were brown with the earth showing through the snow. I went down once - to inaugurate my brand new skis, to make sure I remembered how to ski (I made it down with no poles and no falls!), and to not make it a completely wasted day.

I spent the rest of the day in the chalet, reading The Great Game, one of the best historical books I’ve ever come across and a very insightful look at the great power intrigues played across Central Asia.

The ski business is clearly developing in Kyrgyzstan. Work on two new cottages was underway, the parking lot was full and customers packed the chalet. But customer service has lagged far behind the progress in chairlifts and buildings. The waiter yelled at me and others in turn for bringing our skis inside, saying they’d be fine outside but refusing to take any responsibility for them. They won’t allow people to leave their belongings indoors, forcing most people to base themselves either out of their cars or outdoor picnic tables. And this same waiter made me feel guilty for taking up space (one seat on a bench for 4 or 5), despite the fact that I welcomed any customers who wanted to sit at my table.

He made me move in order to make room for a party of eight. So I ended up in a corner, where another party of 8 or so soon came. He saved this table for them, refusing to allow others to sit there, even though these people brought their own food and bought only drinks and a few bowls of soup from the café. Somehow they’d been deemed important though.

Though I tried to focus on my book, as my table-mates drank more and more, I ended up getting pulled into conversation with them. While I love the nature and the sport of skiing in Kyrgyzstan, it’s a strange experience for me to suddenly be surrounded by so many privileged people – people I generally have little interaction with and don’t always feel comfortable around.

The guy next to me, let’s call him Rysbek, was focused on flirting with me. But in between pick-up lines, he told me he’s finishing his Ph.D. at the end of this month and is the Chairman of the Board of a rural credit union, with $50,000 in personal capital. He couldn’t have been more than 30 years old, making me wonder where he got so much money. This credit union charges 30% interest per year, paid on the original amount borrowed.

I found his friend, Nurbek, more interesting. He was an assistant to Akaev and works as a procurement consultant for several international organizations. In his spare time he breeds rare dogs and horses at his country home. He seemed cultured and intelligent and wants to get together and talk sometime, saying he felt I had an analytical mind.

He told the group how he had an American girlfriend, Carrie, when he was a student in Moscow. “We lived together, and we almost married,” he said. “She was such a strong feminist. Sometimes I’d do something like offer my hand when she was getting out of the car and she’d say no, she could do it herself. But she was something else, very capable and self-reliant.”

“Why didn’t you marry her?” I asked.

“Because of my mother,” he said. “She was strongly against it. She said that as the oldest son, I had the duty to come back and live in Kyrgyzstan. I needed to have a Kyrgyz wife and Kyrgyz children. She wouldn’t even consider it.”

I marveled that he’d listen to his mother and succumb to her pressure from the distance he had in Moscow. And I found it tragic that he threw away his love and his opportunity for an international life because of the pressures of tradition.

“It sounds like the movie, Sunduk Predkov,” I said, referring to a locally popular recent movie about a Kyrgyz man and a French woman in love. “But he was able to convince his family.”

I asked if he found himself a Kyrgyz woman.

“Seven years later I did,” he said.

“And did Carrie marry?”

“Yes. But we still keep in touch sometimes, and write each other letters.”

He said that he’s spent about two months in Washington, D.C. on trainings and what surprised him most was the strict rules regarding interactions between men and women.

“It can take a month to get to the point of where you can ask someone out,” he said. “The sexual revolution and the quick relationships that characterized it have past. This made a positive impression on me.”

It was good to hear something positive about the U.S. Because earlier this week, I attended a classical music concert with one of our employees, Natalia, an intelligent and motivated 24-year-old. I handed her a summary of the news I’d picked up in English, thinking she’d like the practice. Iraq and Afghanistan led the headlines.

“Do you want to live in America?” she asked me.

I didn’t know how to answer her. I told her that my friends and family are there and they provide the main draw. And there are some good things. But the political situation is disheartening and I get bored there when I stay too long.

“I used to want to live in America,” she said. “But not anymore.”

I asked why.

“I’d rather go to Europe, because I think the societies there have values closer to ours. I’d still like to travel to America, but just not live there.”

To me, America falling from the place of Natalia’s dreams was more serious than any military or political loss. It means that a bright, motivated, talented young person no longer sees the U.S. as a place to fulfill her dreams. Instead, Europe shines brighter.

In Bishkek, the maniac seems to have disappeared from the scene. I don’t hear much about him, other than someone occasionally dissuading another from walking at night. My co-worker, Aizhana, said he was caught.

“The police spoke on the TV and said they’d got him.”

“Did they show a picture of him?”


“Did they say his name? Anything about him? Where he’s from? What might have motivated him?”

“No, just that he was crazy.”

“Did they ever name the victims? Did any of their relatives talk on TV?”


I didn’t think I’d heard any of those details, but I wanted to check. Based on her answers to my questions, I think I have to join my friend’s theory that there never was a maniac, that it was a scare conveniently thought up by those in power to keep people off the streets and to make Bishkek residents afraid of young Kyrgyz-speaking men from the south.

Given that it gets dark early now, I take taxis more frequently than I used to. But I’m starting to regain my comfort level.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The First Week of Winter

November 26, 2006

I’d intended to be in Portugal this week. But instead, I ended up staying here and experienced the first week of winter in Bishkek.

Cold air has settled down upon the city, making it unattractive to go outside or spend much time outdoors. And already, the streets and sidewalks have iced up, and they are never shoveled, plowed, sanded, or salted, making walking slow and difficult.

I’ve pulled out all my winter gear, have to bundle up when heading out, and seek to spend time where the heating works and it’s warm.

Along with winter comes the frequent sound of cars sputtering with the effort to overcome the cold. The call to prayer has become a sound of life, the same way it was in Osh. I heard it last night as I walked home in the evening, and found the rhythm soothing and haunting. When I heard it again upon waking at 6:30, it bothered me. In the darkness of early morning, it felt strange to have the Muslim music float through my apartment, an uninvited guest in my home.

The benefit of staying in town was that I got to celebrate Thanksgiving, not only once, but twice. An elegant buffet dinner at the Hyatt was followed two days later by a succulent meal home-cooked by a talented Texan. I had turkey and chicken, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, salads, and dessert. But best of all, cranberry sauce.

A Short Trip to Osh

November 26, 2006

I made a one-day trip down to Osh, the first time I’d been there in months. Enroute, I paid a bribe for the first time in my life.

The flight to Osh was sold out and I didn’t have a ticket. But I figured I’d go to the airport and see if someone didn’t show up. The guard told me yes, they had a seat available, but I would have to pay extra. He asked if I knew how much a ticket cost. I did. He said it would cost more than that price.

“But I’ll need a receipt,” I said.

“There won’t be a receipt.”

“But my office requires one,” I said.

“There won’t be one,” he repeated.

“OK, then I’ll have to get in touch with our office manager.”

So, in front of the several officers and the passengers seated nearby, I called our office manager and asked what to do.

“He wants extra money,” I told her.

“What do you mean?”

“A bribe.”

I then handed my cell phone to the officer so that our office manager could negotiate the bribe directly with him. He handed it back to me and she told me how much to give him.

“Where do I pay?” I asked.

“Put the money, all of it, in your passport,” he said.

I was supposed to hand my passport to him to check, and putting the money in there was supposed to be discreet. But I was far from discreet. After I’d already made a public discussion and phone call, I handed him my passport with the wad of money clearly sticking out. I almost felt sorry for him. He’d probably not had to deal with this much trouble to get his cut before.

I am usually very strongly anti-corruption and anti-bribe. But in this case, I didn’t feel so bad about it. The people who bought their seats in the usual manner didn’t pay anything extra. The staff could have just told me the plane was full, as it was. But instead they were selling the seats reserved for crew. If the employees had an agreement amongst themselves that they’d stand for the one-hour flight in exchange for some extra pay (I expect their salaries aren’t very high), and I’d get to my destination, I was OK with that.

I would have had to sit scrunched in a little dark place at the back of the plane. But a man went back there instead, leaving me with his standard seat.

Despite the falling snow and the icy roads, the plane took off. One hour later, I was in Osh.

Our driver, Malan, met me at the airport, dressed in a fur cap. A new shiny green mosque glimmered off the airport parking lot. A thin layer of snow covered the surrounding mountains. But the ground was clear. On the way into the city, I asked Malan for news.

He said the city had been quiet during the protests. There were only pro-Bakiyev protests, and even they were mostly just people who had been forced to participate.

“They rounded up all the government employees and the students and told them they had to go protest,” he said. “My seventh grade son came home and told me they only had two lessons at school one day. When I asked why he said it was because the teachers took all the older students to the protest.”

At first glance, Osh seemed more run down than I remembered, the houses plain and sagging, the scenery bleak, the people dressed in dull, dark colors. But it didn’t take long before the soul of Osh, its people, showed me the spirit that I love.

I attended an opening of a new business. And there, people filed into the premises – old men in beards and ankle-length robes, old women wrapped in kerchiefs of grey, pilled wool and colorful scarves. They sat out in the cold, without complaint, to watch young women in red dance, to listen to music and to speeches. Children blew pink bubbles with gum and bounced on their heels. Passengers stopped and peered through the gate at the festivities. They filed inside and the babushkas offered up a prayer to bless the premises.

A colleague told me about attending the opening of a car dealership in Bishkek. “Only in Kyrgyzstan could you get 250 people to attend such an event,” he said.

I was impressed by the professionalism of the event. A business was opening in Osh and this was a good thing for the people and the city. They’d have another service available to them, competition increased, and several more decent-paying jobs were made available. It was heartening, a signal of hope and development in often difficult conditions.

After the ceremony, after all that time in the cold, people filed in to look at the new premises. This would have been the time to give people information, to open accounts, to capture new customers. But after allowing people a brief look at the premises, the staff all went off for a celebratory lunch at a nearby café. If people wanted to initiate services with this business, they’d have to come back. In that sense, customer orientation was still missing. However, as competition grows, the customer comes closer and closer to being valued.

During lunch, the housekeeper, a friendly and hardworking woman, approached me. She wanted to know if I could approach the director on her behalf. She was widowed, her father dead, her two brothers poor like her, and she couldn’t support her three children on her $70/month salary.

Unfortunately, low wages continue to exist in Osh. Many people earn $25 a month for full-time work. I was recently talking to some employees and asking about development in Osh. They assured me that the city is developing, that things are getting better.

“But are people still making $25-30 a month?” I asked.


“If an owner of a large business can earn several thousand dollars a month profit, why would he not raise those wages?”

“Because there isn’t a point in doing so as long as there are still people willing to work for that amount.”

“Wouldn’t it be in his interest for his employees to be healthy, to be able to fully dedicate themselves to the job, and not have to worry about how to survive?”

“Maybe. But that type is thinking is still new in this area.”

So this particular housekeeper is doing well by market standards. But with the market rates for goods and services, she finds she can’t support her family. And she was unable to send her first grade daughter to school this year.

So, like usual, I found Osh to be a melding of color and blackness, of hope and despair, of struggle and success, of promise and shame. It’s still the city that captivated me once and captivates me still. I hope to be able to spend some more time there in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Kyrgyz felt photos

A reader requestedd some photos of Kyrgyz feltwork. Here there are!

In order: Golden Thimble souvenir shop (Bokonbaevo), artisan at work at Golden Thimble, making a shyrdak (Osh), natural dye (Osh), the finished product (Osh).

The little things that count

November 19, 2006

I spent the majority of this beautiful fall day indoors, taking advantage of a free day to catch up on some reading, writing and resting. In the late afternoon, I went to a Lebanese restaurant to pick up some take-out, then stopped by the supermarket. On my way out, I saw a man curled up along the side of the road. His head lay face down on the pavement and he was motionless. He looked like a drunk, but he also looked as though he might be dead.

I continued walking, shocked, feeling helpless, and not knowing what to do. I certainly couldn’t move him. Wouldn’t someone who could help him? I looked behind me. Two young men had left shortly after me. They’d also passed the man and had ignored him. So would everyone else. Were they not bothered? What would it take for someone to intervene?

A family walked toward me and I knew they’d pass the man on their evening stroll. The father pushed a child in a stroller. The mother wore a veil. What kind of sight was that for a religious family to come across?

I wished there was an emergency service I could call. Night was falling and I was sure a car would run over him on the narrow road. I imagined him dying and my not having done anything about it. I imagined how the driver would feel who accidentally ran over a human on his way home.

I decided I had to try to do something. Otherwise, I was no better than the callousness in the society I was criticizing.

“We just have a practice of doing nothing,” my co-worker Aizhana told me.

I went back into the supermarket and asked the guard to help. He gave me a strange look, but followed me out and let me point out the man. I asked if he’d please move up him to curb. There, in the street itself, he’d certainly be hit and die.

“Later,” he said in English, and turned back to the store. “He won’t die,” he said in Russian.

“No, now,” I insisted. “The cars will not see him in the dark.” The light was already fading. Within 20 minutes, his dark, crumpled body would be invisible.

He said he’d call for someone to help and I made clear that I’d wait until I saw the man off the street. He did call and two tough-looking Kyrgyz men in black came out shortly, snapping gum and looking annoyed.

“Where are we supposed to move him?” they asked me.

“Just up to the curb, so he won’t get hit.”

The three of them were able to pick the man up with no problem. And in the process of moving him, the man woke up, so I knew he was alive.

“They probably only helped because you are a foreigner and they didn’t want you to look down on their country,” my friend Zhenya later told me.

Regardless, I thanked the guards and went home, feeling much better. I wasn’t able to provide the man with clean clothes, food, or the psychological and drug treatment he needs. He’ll continue on with his difficult existence, for another day at least. But I wouldn’t have to live with the thought that maybe someone would be killed tonight and I could have, but didn’t prevent it.

A city under the spell of a maniac

November 19, 2006

Yesterday, while meeting two friends for tea in posh surroundings, we discussed the situation on the street. They also agreed that the atmosphere had changed. Cathy had several acquaintances who were leaving Kyrgyzstan because they didn’t feel comfortable any more. Her friend, a foreigner, had been mugged at 5:30 p.m. a few days before, and was traumatized after her attacker punched her in the chest.

Earlier in the day, I’d been in a neighborhood on the outer edge of the city with a local employee, Nurgul. I liked the streets we were walking down. They were narrow, devoid of cars, filled with pedestrians and dogs, various houses divided by fences and gates on either side. It felt more like a small town or a village than part of the capital. I commented to Nurgul that while I liked the area a lot in the day, I imagined it would be hard to walk home there at night.

“Yes, it’s completely black,” she said. “Scary.” And with darkness falling at 6 p.m., people who live in those outer regions can have a tough time getting home.

Nurgul told me that since the maniac has been at large, her brother picks her up directly from work. He then makes the rounds to pick up his other sisters and they all head home together.

My Dutch friend Joke told me that for this reason, at least one international organization has changed their hours. Formerly 9 to 6, they now work from 8:30 to 5:30, so that people can get home before dark. This change was made just a few days ago, also a result of the maniac.

Rumors were that they caught him, but now they say it’s the wrong person. Joke theorizes that it may not be as simple as it’s presented.

“You know, having this maniac about is very convenient for the government right now,” she said. “It works well for them to not have anybody on the streets at night and to raise suspicions about those from outside Bishkek.”

She was right, though I hadn’t thought about that. The streets have certainly been most unappealing after dark in the last few days. And the description of the maniac – a Kyrgyz
man, aged 25 to 30, speaking poor Russian, fits the typical protestor to the tee.

In the news, they described the victims of all seven attacks, and they gave the features of the wanted man. But there was no composite. At the time, I asked my co-workers why they didn’t publish a drawing of the wanted man. They didn’t know, but seemed to think it would be a good idea. Maybe there is no wanted man?

Clearly, people are heading for their homes at nightfall, feeling that once they reach the security of their homes, they will be safe. And for the most part, they are correct. The level of violent crime against average citizens is very low.

However, the consequence is that almost overnight, the disappearance of the average people and the families from the evening streets takes away the public eye that keeps order. It’s a disappearance that happened long ago in the US, when people stopped walking. And it would be a shame to lose it here.

“People feel they are safe as long as they are home. But what’s going to happen when break and enter robbers and murderers appear here?” I asked my friends.

They laughed. “That’s too advanced,” they said.

I can only hope the maniac will be announced as caught soon, and that people will return to the streets before their extra-cautious manners become routinized, that they don’t lose the cohesion that makes this such a nice place to live.

Bad vibes

November 17, 2006

For the first time, I’m having bad vibes in Bishkek. As I wrote earlier, I was so uncomfortable walking home last night that I called Mark as soon as I got home and told him I didn’t feel safe.

Tonight, I left work around 8. I rode my bike down a less trafficked road, in order to reduce my chances of getting hit by a car. But it was pitch-black dark, drizzling, cold, and barren. Again, I felt very uncomfortable. I couldn’t move very fast in the darkness, but it was only the fact that I was on a bike that gave me a little security.

I met my friend Zhenya outside an internet café. She wants to emigrate to the U.S. and I helped her out by taking her picture and submitting the application for her and her son online. She wanted to give me some bread she said was especially good.

When I submitted her application, I listed her as legally separated. The definition said there needs to be a court document proving separation. Zhenya hasn’t had any contact with her husband for years and he takes no responsibility for their son. In all manners, she’s divorced. Only she never went to file the papers because she didn’t want to have the pay the fees.

I suggested she begin the process now. “What if you win the lottery?” I asked her, “and then you aren’t allowed to take Algubek with you because you can’t take a child to another country without the father’s permission? You should get things ready now so you are prepared.”

She took my advice and went to the court already this afternoon. “I filed the paperwork and it only cost me 20 som (50 cents)!” she said, excitedly. “I didn’t know it was so cheap!”

She said the court would mail her husband a letter asking him to appear in court. If he came and signed the papers, everything would be fine. If they send him three letters and he doesn’t show up, they’ll process the divorce automatically.

I shared my discomfort with Zhenya. “Do you think my bike will get stolen here?” I asked her, as I locked it to a waterpipe. Recently, someone stole the bike computer that had been attached to the handlebar. I think it happened when I left my bike inside the internet café.

“No, it will be fine,” she said.

“Aren’t you nervous walking your dog alone at dark?” I asked.

“No, I was just with my son,” she said.

We said goodbye and I went into the café to use the internet phone connection.

After making a few calls, my sense of foreboding was so strong that I went outside to check on my bicycle, something I never do. It was where I left it and no one was around.

I then went back in and made a long call to my mother. When I went outside this time, the bike was gone.

After a futile argument with the guard, in which he claimed he’s not responsible, I called Zhenya, just because I needed to tell someone that I’d lost yet another bike (that’s two bikes and two cameras in a span of months). She offered to come walk me home.

While I waited for her, two tipsy Russian men, who looked rather like criminals themselves, came out to talk to me.

“You know, it’s the atmosphere after the Revolution,” one of them said. He bent over and whispered. “The Kyrgyz are sometimes a little crazy. You know there is a maniac on the streets now.” Everyone is talking about the maniac, and it might be people’s fear that keeps people inside and empties the streets to the point where I find them frightening. Although, the police announced today that they’d arrested a suspect.

Zhenya arrived, together with Algubek and the dog. “You see what this place has become, why people want to leave?” she asked.

As much as I’m temporarily not feeling comfortable here, I couldn’t blame it on Kyrgyzstan. I know people all across the U.S. who are unable to keep a bicycle of decent quality because they get stolen so quickly. I was more shocked at losing another possession, tired of contact with criminals, and upset by this strange feeling I’ve had for the past 24 hours of something not being right.

“Just remember that people lose their children, their apartments, and their jobs,” Zhenya said. “And be glad that you were inside on the phone and nothing happened to you.” She was right.

I was glad to have her with me as we walked through the dark alley leading toward my home. My neighborhood looked awful. The garbage that has been piling toward the sky had been blown about and refuse stuck to the cold, wet streets. We maneuvered through the darkness, through the garbage and through puddles.

“Our garbage isn’t getting picked up either,” Zhenya said. “One of the garbage trucks is broken.”

When we passed the dark, empty playground, most of the metal stolen, I thought back to the evenings, not so long ago, when children were out playing late in the lighted street, their screams and laughter rang throughout the neighborhood. It’s such a contrast.

Then, upon reaching the relative comfort of my apartment, I heard banging and yelling upstairs, then the sound of crying through the heating vents. A couple having a violent, physical argument. The disorder continues.

And I dream about the white walls and the rose garden of my Uzbek home, the open greenery of the jailoo, the kind taxi driver who took me to his Kochkor home in August. I know there is so much goodness here. I’m just not feeling it at the moment.

The heat is on

November 17, 2006

Last night, for the first time, I didn’t turn on my electric heater when I got home. This morning, it was strange to step out of the shower and not be shivering. This led me to go check the heat vents, where voila, heat was coming out!

The city decides each year when to turn on the central heating based on how cold it’s been. I read that the heating season began on November 10th. But hospitals and schools get first priority. It took a week to get to a simple apartment like mine.

I haven’t been too good about writing in the past week. Last Sunday I visited the canyons and enjoyed what might be one of my last opportunities to spend time in the Kyrgyz mountains. I ended up separated from the group, walking with a middle-aged mountain enthusiast who was visiting the canyons for the sixth time this season. His daughter married a Dane and he got a videocamera shortly after the wedding in April. Making videos of nature and people in nature has become his passion and we frequently had to stop for him to film. Worse, he expected me to be the star of his film and asked me to do things like eat wild berries, look around pensively, or walk slowly through nature while he filmed. I’ve never had any talent for acting and I think I may have disappointed him.

He gave me a great tour though, bringing me up to the ridge of the canyons where we could walk along and enjoy the aerial view of the clay and sandstone, the red, white, beige and brown stripes, the whimsical shapes created by wind, and white snails and other signs of life buried within 1.5 million years of history.

Another news item from the week is that there is a maniac loose in Bishkek. He has so far attacked seven people in the 7th microdistrict. The attacks are random. In one case, he asked a man, “Do you know where the 7th microdistrict is?” then stabbed him in the face. He doesn’t rob and he doesn’t rape. But he has killed three of his victims.

Between 250 and 500 police are combing the area looking for the man, a 25-30 year old Kyrgyz who speaks poor Russian and lives in the area. Everyone is talking about the maniac and being cautious at night.

Perhaps for that reason, when I walked home last night at 11, the streets seemed deserted, even on the central main roads. Or maybe I just hadn’t walked home so late in a long time. But in any case, it was freaky. The streets were devoid of the usual families and couples that bring public scrutiny and safety to the streets. Only questionable young men, prostitutes and drunks seemed to be about. I found myself frequently looking over my shoulder and felt I stood out in my brightly colored coat.

Then, as I neared my apartment, I passed the trash area. The other night, coming home from work, acrid smoke burned from just about every trash bin enroute. But for some reason, no one is setting fire to or collecting our trash. It already overflowed the bins several days ago and is now a mountainous island of garbage.

Walking past it should normally speed up one’s pace. But a weird looking guy in front of me – a tall, slender Arab in a long coat over what looked like pajamas and stockings - slowed down and then stopped, pretending to look at a cat. Was he nervous by my footsteps behind him? Did he want me to pass? Or was he himself the questionable one?

I almost flipped around and went the other way, but I would have had to come back at some point to get home. So instead, I quickly passed him and took rapid steps to my entrance. I shut the newly-installed iron door with a password opening and gratefully entered my apartment, promising myself to take a taxi next time.

The Kazakhs refuse to come

November 7, 2006

We had a speaker from Kazakhstan scheduled to speak at a seminar who refused to come to Kyrgyzstan due to the protests. She demanded a bodyguard, and a 100% guarantee that nothing would happen to her at the border. We agreed to give her a bodyguard during the day, but we couldn’t give her a 100% guarantee of anything, especially not at the border. And she wanted a bodyguard at her hotel at night as well.

“Who does she think she is?” our driver, Sergei, asked. “The President?”

I could only imagine what they were showing on the news in Kazakhstan, under a regime deathly afraid of such protests taking place on their territory. The next day, a different Kazakh woman did come and I asked her.

“The news doesn’t show it as something limited to the central square,” she said. “They make it seem like it’s taking place all throughout the city.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

November 8, 2006

Guards keeping the two groups apart

pro-Bakiyev supporters on old square

Opposition protestors on central square

Father and son watching protests

White house under guard

Six Days of Protests

November 6, 2006

On the seventh day of protests, people started to get worn out. I had lunch with an American friend who showed up pale, with bags under her eyes.

“I’m tired of the uncertainty,” she said, “Of having to pay attention every hour to what’s going on, to constantly checking the internet and not knowing what’s coming next. I can hear the shouting from my apartment. It never stops.”

After lunch, she and I walked to the square to see what was going on. Bakiyev had collected more people since the day before, including 3rd, 4th and 5th year students from the Kyrgyz Medical Academy, who claimed that classes were canceled and they were forced to come stand up for Bakiyev.

There was also a large group of opposition protestors, who had moved from in front of the White House to the Central Square. What was more disturbing were the rows of National Guard in riot gear, holding rectangular metal shields in front of them, forming rows on either side of the street, keeping the two rows of protestors apart. Plenty of soldiers still slept or lounged in the grass, drinking bottles of Tan, however those in the row seemed more alert than what I’d seen the day before.

It was very strange to walk in between the two protests, to be within the confines of these soldiers in riot gear and to see that despite the tension, free movement was still allowed. Plenty of people came down with the sole purpose of checking things out, since there is no other way of getting reliable news.

Reading the news on the internet, it seems like the President and the politicians are getting closer to a compromise on the new constitution. But to the protestors, it seems to be just an opportunity to try to get Bakiyev out of power. His supporters shouted – “Ba-ki-yev! Ku-lov!” repeatedly, as though at a high-school pep rally. A more impressive speaker spoke in Russian about the fact that Kyrgyz are united, and they will not be divided and thrown into conflict by the opposition.

One Western visitor, who came in town earlier this week, thinks the protests are great, that Kyrgyzstan is the only place in Central Asia where people are allowed to go on the street and say what they want, regardless of how stupid it might be.

But the locals, including our driver, Sergei, were getting tired.

“On the first days, I had some interest in what is going on,” he said. “But seven days is too much. And when I go down there, I see all these young people, under age 25. It would be a different story if there were mature people my age saying something intelligent. But these rural youth don’t even have anything in their heads to think with. They don’t even know how to say the word Constitution. They’ve never said it before in their lives. They have no idea what the difference is between a Presidential system and a Parliamentary democracy. But they are down there yelling this word, Constitution, that they don’t understand.”

He also said he could see a lot of potential criminals in the group – maybe such as the hard-faced men pictured below. “They are just waiting for when disorder will begin and they can have the opportunity to freely steal things.”

Several people I work with left their cars at home, not wanting to take a risk in case something happens. But more and more people are returning to their normal routines and the roads filled with cars yesterday.

“People just get used to things,” Sergei said. “This has now become a part of life.”

That’s true. Last week, we closed our office with lesser gatherings. Now no one questions working the whole day.

The fact that is that outside an area of a few blocks, there is no sound, indication of, or effect of the protests. Should one choose to, it’s possible to enter a cocoon and just pretend nothing is happening. I’ve been tempted to do that for a while, but the intrigue of what might happen and the recognition of a unique moment in Kyrgyz history draws me to the news sites and to the square.

However, for the first time yesterday, I did go to aerobics class. I had figured they’d be disrupted by the protests, but they weren’t. A sizeable class showed up, woman who were going to get their exercise no matter what was going on outside.

I emerged into the dark evening and could hear the speakers’ voices over the loudspeaker. Do they never get tired of talking? Can people remain riled up for so long? Don’t the people down there have headaches by now? Not to mention the poor people with apartments located there.

Luckily, my apartment is out of the sound range. So I returned home to quiet, no news, and the ability to unwind. Only to wake up once again wondering if anything fundamental had changed in my surroundings.

Let it Snow

November 21, 2006

Winter is here. The first snow fell today, covering the tree branches in a light layer of frost. The air became nippy, the streets slushy. It’s barely light before the workday begins and is already dark when it’s over. People have had to accept that it’s now winter. Several months to go before streets will be light and warm and full again.

Maybe the cold weather will keep some of the bad guys off the street. Some say they are people from the regions who came for the protests and didn’t go back home. I heard of three muggings in the past week alone – more than I’ve heard about in my whole time in Kyrgyzstan. One of them was one of our employees – a young man who was leaving a disco with a friend on Sunday night when they were jumped by six strangers who took their cell phones and wallets. Manas had a tooth knocked out (but was able to get it replaced). His friend is now OK, but spent some time in the hospital. I’m now going home every evening with our driver.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

eating lunch

tent dwellers

boy putting on shoes outside red tent

The Protests Continue Over the Weekend

November 4, 2006

I expected the protests to be at their strongest on Thursday, the first day. So I was surprised when my boss called yesterday afternoon. On vacation, she was at home watching TV.

“It’s getting bad,” she said. “I don’t expect anything good to come of this. Close the office, take the important documents, and make sure everyone gets home safely.”

We stopped a seminar in progress and canceled a scheduled party that evening to say goodbye to a departing colleague. The staff grumbled that the fun, drunken Friday evening they’d imagined wouldn’t take place. They seemed to consider getting together anyway.

“The café is far from the center,” they said. “Nothing will happen there.”

But when we went on the internet and saw headlines that several Parliament members had gone into the national broadcasting building and that protestors had stormed a local government building, they agreed with the closing.

As much as CNN can get on my nerves, with the same stories repeated over and over, and the often emotional, rather than analytical reporting, at that moment I wished for a Kyrgyz version of CNN, someplace where I could see what was going on at the moment. My two TV channels are Russian channels and even they don’t show up well. And news in Kyrgyzstan is slow to get to the Russian or Western web sites.

I was curious to see what was going on, but decided to play it safe. The anxiety in Maria’s voice had transferred itself to me and I found myself afraid to go home alone on my bicycle. My unpleasant experience in Nicaragua lowered my risk acceptability level substantially.

I walked, together with several staff members who lived in the same direction. Again, the activity on the streets wasn’t much different from usual. Autumn leaves swirled down onto people selling grapes, strawberries, apples, flowers, carrots, eggplant and peppers. Marshrutkas took their passengers home. Cars with little yellow taxi signs atop waiting along the roadsides for passengers.

After arriving home, I began to feel more tranquil, as I was again completely cut off from news. And in my immediate environment, everything appeared normal.

I decided to go out to the internet café. I felt more comfortable being out on the street when I had nothing worth stealing on me. I expected the internet café might be closed, but clients were there as usual, gambling at the numbers tables, making internet-based telephone calls. Two young girls next to me compared notes on pictures of young men they were looking at online. Every entrepreneur had to make the decision for themselves – to close shop and lose profit, or to stay open and take the risk.

Possibly, being there was a good form of protection. At least they could take some action or try to talk looters out of doing something should such activities begin.

“You’re staying here tonight,” I heard a man tell the man who sold me vegetables at the market on my way home.

“Why?” the man asked.

“For security. What do you think?”

This morning I spoke to my friend Zhenya and she told me she’d gone to visit the square yesterday afternoon.

“The people who are in the tents are such simple, poor people,” she said. “There is no way they are part of an opposition party. I went up to one tent and asked a woman who she wanted to be President. She said she didn’t know, just not Bakiyev.”

I decided this afternoon I’d go take a look for myself. When I approached, I saw people crowded around a truck. When I looked in, I saw it was filled with individual portions of food in white plastic containers. They were being distributed to the protestors, people who don’t have enough money to feed themselves – people for whom a free meal is an inducement to join a political movement.

On the stage, men made speeches, first in Kyrgyz, then translated into Russian. Most attendees were men, and almost all were Kyrgyz. These type of activities seem to lead the Russians to emigrate rather than earn their support.

The atmosphere was relaxed. Police officers sat together in the grass. Protestors, appearing poor and rural as Zhenya had said, sat on ledges, eating the food that had been distributed to them. They didn’t look too energized or as though they had a cause.

A few yurts were lined up next to the stage. Several rows of tents spread out on either side, toward the main road, which was open. On one side, all the tents were red, the opposition’s colors. And some protestors wore red fabric tied around their necks.

I watched a young boy emerge from a red tent and put on his shoes. A collection of shoes lay outside the tent’s door. Even when living in a tent on the central square, the Kyrgyz maintain their politeness and hygiene. I wondered about this boy’s life circumstances, what kind of family he has that brought him out to live in the chilly autumn on the central square. He was dressed pretty well. I wonder whether the people in the red tents are those connected to the opposition politicians and those in the varied tents are the poor who are living out there for money.

Near the square, several small vendors were doing good business selling sour milk balls, drinks, chips and rolls. And the traffic flowed by as always, including the beribboned and honking entourages of post-Ramadan wedding parties. One car belonging to a wedding party broke down, directly across from the protests.

Another block or two away, children played at the playground and adults strolled down the leaf-strewn paths of the central park. People live and wait and hope that everything will end calmly.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Protests and Thanks

November 2, 2006

Today the promised protests against the President took place. And they had another complaint to add to their list. President Bakiyev promised to present a new version of the Constitution to Parliament, this morning, then failed to do so. Bakiyev said he had no obligation to listen to the opposition groups and that they couldn’t pressure him to hurry with Constitutional reforms.

The day was pretty quiet. I was happy to see that most businesses were open and most people went about their daily activities as usual. We worked, but like many others, ended our day a few hours early, so that people could be sure to get home before dark and before any problems started.

The protesters organized meetings in five places around town at 1 p.m., then walked toward the central square. According to the Russian evening news, about 30,000 people gathered and they are planning to stay on the square – in yurts and in tents – until the President keeps his promises.

When I walked home shortly before five, I could see very few differences in the activities on the street. The market nearest my home had been closed all day, but the vendors on the street were there. The elderly woman I bought flowers from told me she hadn’t had any problems. I saw a pair of foreigners going out for a run, the children outside playing as always. But those not involved in the protests probably avoided going out in the evening.

My colleagues showed no interest at all in participating in the protests. They thought that even thought the President has not gained the faith of the people, it would cause more instability if he were to be removed.

“People have just start to get used to the new system and start working again,” our office manager, Kasiet, said.

They said the payment for people to join the protest was 500 som ($12.50). When people headed home after work, they jokingly asked if they were going to the square to earn some extra money.

For me, my most memorable moment of the day was the kiss my adopted babushka, Natalya Vasielievna, planted on my cheek. It had been months since I’d been to see Natalya and I stopped by to give her the paper I’d saved for her (which she uses in fires for her home and banya). I asked how she was preparing for the winter. She’d told me before that last year her inability to buy enough firewood meant she’d almost frozen to death.

When she told me she hoped to reconnect her gas, which she’d stopped using five years ago, I offered her $25 and asked if it would be enough to get it running again. I think it’s enough not only to restart it, but to pay for several months of heat.

A smile crossed her wrinkled face, and in a burst of emotion, she grasped my shoulders, hugged me and kissed my cheek.

It makes me feel good to know that one elderly woman won’t be cold this winter. But it’s also sad that people live in such poor conditions that $25 can make such a difference. If you’d like to help out an elderly person in Kyrgyzstan, you can adopt a grandmother or grandfather for $150 a year. I can vouch that Babushka Adoption is a reliable, quality charity and that their recipients truly need the assistance.

Glimpses of Bishkek

October 31, 2006

It’s been a busy week or so. My boss has been on vacation, so I’ve been taking over her work. But even with a double workload, the quality of life is so much better here than in Nicaragua and I treasure and enjoy all the small moments.

One afternoon I met my friend Zhenya at Bishkek’s first modern shopping center – called Vefa. Seeing a chocolatier, Gap, Benetton and Levi’s stores, and a supermarket in Bishkek shocked me. Zhenya’s son Algubek loved the transparent elevator and Zhenya marveled at the lights that hung three stories down from the ceiling. A children’s play area on the top floor looked like a Chuck E Cheese, but only cost 50 cents per hour. There was a movie theater (playing cheap, discarded Western movies – we saw the Perfumier and walked out after 45 minutes) and a fast food court. But the so-called fast food didn’t include any Western giants. Most of the stands had a Turkish influence and several sold English tea in glazed ceramic Turkish mugs.

I was pretty amazed to realize there are enough affluent people in Bishkek to support such a venture. The local population seems to have embraced it. I saw several people I knew there – locals who are professionals, but not especially wealthy. Like teenagers hanging out at the shopping mall, Vefa provides a place to casually meet and see something new.

I feel very at home in my neighborhood, comfortably leaving and entering at all times of the day and night. The young boys greet me, making me feel like I’ve become enough of a neighborhood fixture. Old women sit on benches, wearing thick socks and scarves around their heads, talking or people-watching for hours at a time. I watched a family walk across a busy street – the patriarch wearing a tall, white felt kalpak. And here, that doesn’t attract any attention.

Sunday was a beautiful fall day, the bright yellow and crinkled brown leaves falling down like a constant, light rainshower. Outside my window, I watched children in mismatched clothing playing on the slide – the one toy that the metal thieves didn’t take apart. They would bunch together at the bottom of the slide, hitting one another like carts of a train joining together, laughing hysterically at the pretended accidental crash. They repeated this over and over. I think they just wanted to be part of a group hug.

Today, upon coming home from work, I stopped when I saw two soldiers in the road, holding glow in the dark red batons. They were holding up traffic to allow a troop to cross the street. The soldiers (all male) came out of one building, in formation, dressed in green khaki, and proudly singing a song in Kyrgyz. They marched into the other building, still singing. I know my friend Gulnara’s brother serves there – that the soldiers are mostly just kids for whom studies didn’t work out. But it was nice to see them proud and professional, even when crossing a street in the dark of night.

The day after tomorrow, massive protests are planned against the President. The same opposition leaders who put Bakiyev in power are now regretting it. And it is they who are protesting. The government is issuing statements that criticism should be constructive, that major disruptions won’t be allowed, while at the same time preparing empty hospital beds in Bishkek.

Neighborhood Changes

October 23, 2006

I notice two main changes in my neighborhood during my absence. One, most unfortunately, is that the nice playground that went up with the new building across the street, has been destroyed. Only the slide still stands.

When the toys appeared, they drew the neighborhood children out until 10 p.m., flying in circles on the spinning chairs, swinging, sliding. It made me smile to see their joy. But now, they seem to have been dismantled, only the skeletal frames remaining.

I asked our driver, Sergei, what might have happened.

“Someone probably stole the metal and sold it as scrap to China,” he said.

That’s a very depressing thought.

The second change is that the mosque seems to have installed more powerful speakers. Or they are turning them up for Ramadan. I can now hear the evening call to prayer in my apartment, when I never could before. This brings back memories from Osh, where the call to prayer would float through the air over dinnertime, a lulling, mystical melody.

The mosque has a new sign on its fence advertising an SMS Islam service. Given the veils and traditional dress I see in that area, I find it funny to also see the mosque embracing cell phone modernity. I commented on it to Sergei.

“Islam is gaining more and more followers throughout the world,” he said. “We white people are a bad race. We’re always fighting with each other. But the Muslims support each other. For that reason, they grow strong.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bride Kidnapping Again

October 22, 2006

Yesterday, seated with a group of local colleagues, I read an article about bride kidnapping in the local English-language newspaper. Human Rights Watch recently released a report condemning Kyrgyzstan’s inaction on bride kidnapping and domestic violence.

The article related the story of a 17-year-old, Feruza, who was kidnapped by a stranger on the night she was supposed to wed someone else.

“He forced me to have sex with him the first night,” she is quoted in the article. “A woman came to say that they’d prepared my bed; I thought I’d be alone. I lay down to sleep, then he came in and he forced himself on me and raped me. I was saying no and he still did it. I cried and screamed…There were other times, too, when he raped me. I didn’t ever want to go to sleep.”

I commented to two of my co-workers on the article. “How awful,” I said, “someone was kidnapped on her wedding night.” I couldn’t imagine all of the preparations and thoughts of a voluntary life together suddenly replaced by a life with a stranger, a stranger willing to use force and violence.

“That happens all the time,” Aizhana, a 33-year-old single mother said with a smile. “When a guy realizes he’s about to lose her to someone else, he reacts quickly.”

Nasikat, an unmarried woman in her twenties also laughed.

“That probably happened in the south,” Aizhana said.

“It happens here too,” Nasikat said. “In the villages around Bishkek. I have a friend who was stolen and taken back two times.”

They both giggled as I remained silent, but shocked at their light treatment of the matter.

A little later, while walking down the street with Aizhana, I told her that the article continued to bother me. One of the first cases of forced kidnapping I came across in Osh, a case I’ve written about in this blog, took place when the man made arrangements with a taxi driver to help him kidnap her. Being taken hostage in a taxi or car seems to occur relatively frequently.

“After my experience in Nicaragua,” I told Aizhana, “I know what it feels like to suddenly be a prisoner in a car. It’s a shocking and traumatic experience. And for me, it was just one day. But for them, it’s the rest of their lives.”

“I know,” said Aizhana, with uncharacteristic gravity. “I think it’s because it happens all the time here that we just get used to it and treat it so lightly.”

At the same time, when I tell staff about what happened in Nicaragua, they look at me in disbelief.

“Is it such a dangerous place?” one woman in her early 20s asked me. “That would never happen here.”

And she’s right. I’ve heard of some cases of taxi drivers being victims – killed for their cars. But I’ve never heard of a driver himself being involved in harming his passengers.

I’ve been more cautious when taking taxis here, less willing to argue over price as long as I get to my destination safely. When I take a marshrutka, the public mini-buses, I’m amazed that I don’t need to worry about knife-bearing teenagers who could stick me up in public, while the rest of the bus would sit passively. That happens in Nicaragua, but not here.

Of course, this is a sign the society somehow functions better here – perhaps the closeness of the family is responsible. At the same time, violence against women is not uncommon. And women under the age of 25 are at constant risk of kidnapping, rape, and an entire life with someone they may not love.

Just because I’m not in the risk group, I feel safe here. But I wonder, does the localization of violence within the family unit, does the targeting of a rather helpless group (women aged 15-25), thus reduce the incidence of randomized violence? Do the young women in Kyrgyzstan bear the brunt for the rest of us? Is that why so many of them would like to get out?