Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day

The big day arrived – the day that women are appreciated, valued, and treated well.

The celebrations started yesterday. My male colleagues greeted each female upon their arrival at the office with a trio of tulips and an offer of tea or coffee. Later, they gave us all special-ordered mousepads and keychains and treated us to cake and champagne. Some employees later invited me for cake and Fanta and gave me a wooden holder for incense sticks.

I went out in the afternoon and found most businesses working as usual. But many people, both men and women, seemed to make an effort to be extra kind. Yesterday, a marshrutka driver refused to let me pay. Today my favorite café gave me a small bunch of freesias. When I bought a DVD, the female clerk gave me a five percent discount. And the Chinese-speaking owner of a new Chinese supermarket threw in a little packet of Chinese snacks for free. She called out to the young Russian employed there as a translator and shopper’s helper.

“S pradznikom (Happy holiday),” she then said to me, in heavily slurred Russian. That was OK, because she’d just commented that my Russian sounded like English.

Several people called or SMSed me greetings. Zhenya called in excitement about her sales yesterday.

“I took in 9,000 som!” she said. “Everyone was buying presents.” Her usual income is about 1,500 som, her previous record under 3,000.

The nicest call of all came from an employee I worked with in Osh, Erlist. When someone was going to unjustly fire him, I fought on his behalf. He was later rehired in an even higher position in Jalalabat. I hadn’t spoken to him in almost five months and I appreciated that he thought of me on the holiday and even made a rather expensive long-distance cell phone call to offer his congratulations.

I also received an emailed congratulations from my Osh friend Kairagul. After encountering difficulties with her management in Osh, she quit in December and relocated with her new husband to Russia, leaving her son in Osh until she got resettled. I recommended her as a good employee to a colleague there. But due to variance in the recommendations she received, Kairagul almost didn’t get hired. In the end, my colleague decided to trust her own positive impressions of Kairagul, as well as the recommendations given by me and another. She hired her in a position that pays over twice what she earned in Osh.

I spent most of the afternoon visiting the babushka I adopted through Adopt a Babushka ( back in December. I had been meaning for a long time to visit her. I wanted to meet her in person, to see if the promised assistance was reaching her, and to find out how else I might be able to help her.

I bought her a cake, flowers, raisins, pastries, tea, oranges, sausage and a four-piece kitchen storage set, then set out to find her house. Adopt a Babushka offered to take me to her house. “It’s so tiny, you can miss it,” they told me. But they were closed on the holiday and I wanted to visit her on the day off. Also, I worried that no one else would congratulate her and I thought a visit on this day in particular would mean something to her.

So after walking for well over an hour, I found her house. I paused at the door, worried about dogs. A little girl quickly emerged from the neighboring house, intrigued by the sight of a foreign-looking person carrying a cake and flowers.

“Does Natalya Vasilievna live here?” I asked her.


“Does she have a dog?”

“No, she lives alone. With just a cat. Ring the bell there on the door.”

I rang the bell and the little girl shouted to Natalya to come out.

She came to the door, a wrinkled, square-faced 78-year old wrapped in several layers of clothes. I introduced myself as her sponsor. She told me that someone from Adopt a Babushka had come to visit her last February and promised to send her 400 som a month. “But I didn’t start getting anything until December,” she said. Unfortunately, that was how long it took them to find her a sponsor.

“I have to say, that extra assistance really helps a lot,” she said. “And when she came back she brought such wonderful presents – even a Christmas tree!” she said. I was happy to hear she liked them.

The little girl stood by the entire time, eagerly eavesdropping.

“You can go away,” Natalya told her and she scampered back into her fenced yard.

I had brought everything needed for tea and thought Natalya might invite me in. But she didn’t.

“Could I see how you live?” I asked.

She agreed. I walked past a gaggle of chickens and saw her orderly garden, ready for planting. Her house was only two rooms – a tiny kitchen and a bedroom/living room. It was neat, clean, and as well maintained as one can on $10 a month.

She sat me down in the kitchen, near the door. It was clear she didn’t expect me, or want me, to stay long. I later understood her hesitation.

Her pension of 487 som a month ($12) was recently increased by 35 som (less than a dollar) and she was happy about that. “I sell eggs to the neighbors, which covers my milk and bread, and now I get an extra 700 som (from Adopt a Babushka) every two months. I will pick up my next payment on March 14th.” She seemed to be counting the days.

She told me that no one had given her anything for the holiday and she seemed pleased to be congratulated.

“Even a cake!” she said, with some excitement. But she didn’t touch the gifts in my presence, leaving them on a chair across the room.

She pointed to her stove. “In the late 90s someone came and installed a gas line for heat free of charge,” she said. “So I used that for a while. But then the cost of gas went up to 200 som a month. At the time, my pension was only 250. So that left only 50 som ($1.25) a month for my food and expenses. So since 2000, I shut off the gas and only use wood.”

She told me that she had to borrow money from the neighbors to buy wood. And this year she didn’t have enough. “I thought I was going to freeze this winter,” she said. “I don’t know how I made it through.”

I asked if she needed paper to burn. Crazy as it sounds, I’ve been collecting my used paper ever since I moved here in October. I knew there were people in Bishkek who needed it, I just didn’t know how to find them.

“Definitely,” she said. “There is a teacher in the neighborhood who brings me her used notebooks. But if you have extra paper, that would help. My banya is also heated by fire.”

So now I’ll make an effort to collect more paper that would be otherwise thrown away, perhaps seeing if I can collect it at work.

She told me she was born in 1928. “I lived with my husband for 20 years, then he found another woman and left me. I don’t know where he is. Now I live all alone.”

Living alone as an elderly woman seems to be difficult. She told me that five years ago she took in someone for a month. When she arrived home one afternoon, she found everything gone.

“She’d taken everything,” she said, looking traumatized at the memory. “The neighbors were surprised, because they saw a taxi pull up and usually no one comes here. She just took everything out and left.”

Then, she was deceived again, just last August. “Two beautiful gypsy women came to my door, together with their children. They told me that a neighbor had put a spell on me. They asked me to bring out an egg and a scarf. I did so. They broke the egg in the scarf and found a blue hair in the yolk. That was a sign of the spell, they said. They told me there was a snake in my house that was out to get me and they could help me find it. So they came in and got on their hands and knees, looking everywhere. Of course, they didn’t find anything. What they were really looking for was money.” She frowned.

“Then someone called at the door. They were sitting where you are now. When I walked out, they lifted up the tablecloth and found my money. There was 600 som ($15 there). I’d just gotten my pension, plus I had 100 som a neighbor had given me for eggs. They took everything, didn’t even leave me 10 kopecks. As soon as I realized it, I ran outside and told everyone they’d stolen my money. But there had been a car waiting there and they got away in the car.”

She had a heart attack after that. “I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how I could possibly live.”

I found the thought of someone having a heart attack over losing $15 really pitiable.

“Luckily, I have good relations with my neighbors. I’ve been living here for 46 years. The neighbors took up a collection and came up with 470 som ($12), which was enough to get me to my next pension.”

Only six months after this latest theft, of course she felt nervous allowing strangers into her house. Of course she didn’t want me to enter the inner area.

I asked if there was anything she needed besides paper and she said no. I asked if she’d mind my coming by once a month or so to bring her some groceries and visit. She agreed. I left her my phone numbers, hoping if she knew who I was, she could have more trust that I wouldn’t run away with her belongings.

“I don’t have a phone,” she said.

“You can call from your neighbors, can’t you?”

“Yes. What should I call you for?”

“If you need anything.”


I walked another hour home, finding a new Chinese supermarket on the way. After a cloudy, cool morning, the afternoon was sunny, blue, and spring-like. I saw many couples and families strolling, enjoying the holiday, spending time together. Many women made a special effort to dress up. When my friend went to the beauty salon, the stylist told her they were out of hair dye until March 9th. Everyone wanted to be beautiful for the holiday.

I hadn’t done anything special. I wore jeans and tennis shoes, no make-up, and my hair needed a cut (I decided to wait until after the holiday, when demand would decrease). But I didn’t regret not having any big plans, or anyone to take me out. It felt much nicer to do something for someone else.

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