Saturday, February 04, 2006

Today I took a taxi with a 23-year-old who looked 16. I noticed he had a small star-shaped pin of Lenin as a young boy pinned to his air freshener.

“Is that Lenin?” I asked, surprised. I very rarely see Lenin displayed, as much as some remain nostalgic for Soviet times.

“Yes. Would you like me to give it to you as a gift?”

“No thanks. I’m just surprised to see him.”

“One day I was an Octoberist. I found it among my things and thought it was nice to look at.”

A few hours later I met an inspiring middle-aged woman who left her job as a physics teacher in 2000 to begin selling at the market. With two children headed for college, she didn’t feel she could meet the expenses on her teacher’s salary.

First she worked as a saleswomen, then opened her own container, where she sells clothing she has shown here in Bishkek. The change from the warm classroom to hours in a freezing iron container hit her hard and she lost all but four teeth – she says to the cold.

Her container is well taken care of and her goods – mostly bathrobes and women’s blouses, are well presented. I told her I liked her container.

“I love my products,” she said. She patted one white, fuzzy robe as she showed it to me. “This is called snegurhichka,” she said, naming it after the pretty young woman who accompanies Father Ice at the New Year.

What was especially nice was to see how she’d been able to improve her families standard of living. Within the past few months alone she’d purchased a $450 modern washing machine, and a new gas stove.

This evening I invited my friend Zhenya over to share the pot of vegetable soup I’d cooked up. She came over with her son Algubek and a bunch of goodies from her new store – carrot juice, yogurt, gumdrops and cookies. She loved the richness of all the vegetables in my soup, but both she and her son had trouble adapting to the lack of potatoes.

Algubek spun his spoon around in his bowl. “I’m just looking for potatoes,” he said.

She works every day at her new store, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. She can’t trust her salespeople to open or close the store without stealing, so it’s impossible for her to take a day off.

“I’m dying to go to the mountains, to get out into nature,” she said. “But I can’t find a way to take a day off.”

It was nice to catch up with her. I feel like I’ve been spending too much time lately either at work or with my expatriate friends. Zhenya was the first friend I made upon arriving in Kyrgyzstan almost a year and a half ago and I’m very thankful for all she’s taught me about local life.

Tomorrow Zhenya will accompany me to my belly dancing class. That’s something that I’ve taken up in the last week, along with downhill skiing and Kibo. Belly dancing is very popular in Bishkek. At the health club that I’m currently attending (where I’m pretty much the only foreigner), they offer 20 belly dancing classes per week, and most are packed. As a tall, uncoordinated white person, I pretty much look like a fool. But luckily the people aren’t very judgmental and they allow me to make my slow progress at my own rate.

I finally visited Beta Stores for the first time since it opened in late December. This was the major Turkish supermarket and department store that was completely looted during the March 2005 revolution. Understandably, the owners lost a lot of money and it’s impressive they even rebuilt. But the new Beta stores is less exciting than the previous version. They seem to have filled less space with goods, offering a smaller selection. And the upper floors have been divided into small spaces and rented out. This makes it look more like Tsum, the former state department store, than the major department store it once was. It was sadly quiet and empty when I visited, as though the new, shiny walls held only the ghost of its former presence.

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