Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Zhenya called me this morning, upset. She’s having a hard time getting products from Schwartzkauf, the German maker of shampoos and other personal care products.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “In other countries, manufacturers want to work with stores. But here one has to beg, to placate, and to please them in order for them to come.”

They had agreed to come at lunch time, but instead came in the late morning. They called to see why Zhenya wasn’t there.

“First of all, it’s Navruz,” she said. “And second, we agreed on lunchtime. I can come now if you want.”

“No, we are never going to come to your store again,” they replied.

Before this, they had told her they wouldn’t come again if she didn’t buy a minimum sum every few days.

Of course, she purchases small amounts. But she’s only been working a few months. And if she starts with small purchases, she’s likely to make larger purchases as time goes on. It’s in the interest of the company to help her develop her business.

“The larger companies, Scwartzkauf, Procter and Gamble, they are all like this,” she said. “If you can’t buy at least $25 of products, they are not interested.”

She really wants to sell the Shwartzkauf shampoos. I asked if she could buy them wholesale from another vendor, but she doesn’t like that idea.

“There would be less of a margin and it wouldn’t be worth it. Shampoo is heavy and it would be hard to carry it from the market to my store. Such products are better to have delivered by the manufacturer.”

So for now, her customers will have to live without.

Zhenya and I decided to walk together to the central square to see the Navrus gatherings. I was hoping to spend the holiday with a local and was glad to receive her call.

I’ve met a lot of great expatriates in Bishkek and I appreciate those friendships. But I’m spending more time now with expatriates than ever before and it’s making me wonder if I’m becoming too removed from local life.

Navruz is a shamanistic rite celebrated throughout Central Asia. It marks the beginning of spring and is an Islamic adaptation of shamanist vernal equinox or renewal celebrations. Often banned in Soviet times, it became an official celebratin in 1989 in order to distract attention from Muslim nationalistm. On this day, people celebrating at home have a special meal that should include separate, symbolic items for men and women as well as seven items that being with “sh” in Kyrgyz: wine, milk, sweets, sugar, a peanut sweet, candle and a bud. It’s marked by lots of festivities on Bishkek’s central square and horse races in Talas and elsewhere.

We walked down the main street, Chui Prospect. Already at Tsum, the central department store, the streets filled with people. Outside of Tsum, a crowd formed a semi-circle around a woman playing a traditional instrument.

As we walked further into town, closer to the central square and the White House, the crowds thickened.

“Russians usually stay home on this day,” Zhenya said. “The Kyrgyz all come from the villages, together with their children, and the Russians are afraid because they get wild. Especially at night, when they get drunk.”

Herself a mix of nationalities, she considers herself a Russian. And as she said, there were very few non-Kyrgyz.

But except for throwing their garbage wherever they happened to sit, the people we saw were very well-behaved. A festive spirit ran through the air. I never see so many small children and it was pleasant to watch entire families saunter through an afternoon.

“Did you notice how many small children there are?” Zhenya asked. “Even in these times, when everything is unstable, people continue to have kids.”

Zhenya told me she recently received bad news from her son. He received his third quarter grades.

“I opened up his notebook that had the grades and it was horrible!” she said. He had a 2 (the equivalent of an F) in reading, math and Russian. “I told him OK, math is hard and Russian is hard, so I can understand. But reading? What’s so hard about reading?”

She found out that they had to read a text and were expected to read 70 or 80 words a minute. He read only 35. He explained that he didn’t feel like reading fast, so he purposely read slowly.

Zhenya told me that intellect doesn’t run in her family. Neither she nor her mother studied well. “My mother’s brother was smart,” she said. “And I thought maybe Bagdan would be that way as well. When he was a year and half old, he already knew his alphabet. And he could read at three. But it stopped there.”

The central square was decorated with a large concert stage, giant banners announcing Navrus 2006 and Kyrgyz flags. Photographers worked feverishly. The Kyrgyz seem to like photos with background sets. So all along the road we passed stuffed elephants and tigers, plastic chairs and plastic flowers, and felt covered boards announcing Navrus among flowers and balloons.

Zhenya spoke of her friend Sveta and how much she misses Bishkek. She’s currently living in Almaty. “The people here are so much simpler,” Zhenya said. “You’d never see things like those dirty plastic chairs, that people here are willing to pay to be photographed on.” For the rest of the day, she made a point of pointing out all the things that would only happen in Kyrgyzstan. Many of them – like the cheap games of luck people thought up to make money, and the people sitting and eating in the grass – didn’t phase me at all. I wouldn’t have paid any special notice.

But others were definitely unique to Kyrgyzstan. “Look at those people gathering used glass bottles, right in front of the White House,” she said, laughing. And she was right. Just a few feet away from the most powerful office in the country, people collected and lined up brown, green and white bottles.

I told her I respected that. In America they’d probably just go in the trash. “It’s ecologically clean,” I told her.

“Yes, and look at this ecologically clean,” she said, pointing at the trash already littered across the lawn. “By tomorrow it will be a mess here.” She had a point.

We walked along the art gallery row, where vendors sell paintings under awnings, watch, saw people playing a game throwing large bones (from which animal, no one seemed to know) into the center of a circle, clapped for young dancers, enjoyed a lunch purchased from a grocery store on an outdoor bench, and appreciated the beautiful, sunny, spring weather. The willow trees already hung in green threads and the small apricots already bloomed pink. We heard the sound of popping balloons, of laughing children, and smelled all the national dishes offered for sale – various animal innards, steamed meat-filled dumplings, fried rice with carrot and beef, meat kebabs, and the special holiday treat – sumalak – a brown sweet made from wheat germ sold in small plastic cups for 10 som. Salima had told me so much about it – how difficult it is to make, how long it takes, how it’s only made for Navruz. Only women can make it and the many steps include soaking the wheat for three days until it sprouts, grinding it, mixing it with oil, sugar and flour, and cooking it for 24 hours. So I had to try it. But it wasn’t as good or as sweet as she’d led me to expect.

“They probably have one version they make at home and another version for sale,” Zhenya said.

A bicycle taxi pedaled past us, on the street closed to traffic, and huge stands of balloons puffed up with offerings of Ronald McDonald, Spiderman and Donald Duck.

Our last stop was at the ferris wheel. Zhenya was reluctant to stand in line, but I convinced her it would be worth it. It was a slow, steadily moving wheel, with red, blue, green and yellow carriages that sat four people each. At the base, an old Russian woman renting binoculars sucked on a chocolate ice cream stick. We paid the 35 som fare and climbed aboard. They allowed us to ride alone.

As we rose higher, we could see all the festivities going on below – the children twirling around on the ancient rides, the families seated in the grass, the activities on the central square, the golden domes of a central square building.

On the way home, we passed a place where a carpet of violets bloomed under white-trunked trees. “Spring is really here,” Zhenya said. And by participating in this holiday, we’d officially marked it.

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