Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Trudging Through the Fields

A cold, steady rain fell this morning and continued throughout the day. I went to the home of a man who owns a simple beauty shop at the Osh market. He warned me that the rain had turned the roads to mud and he worried his old Zhiguli wouldn’t make it, but we tried anyway. A little ways short of the house, the mud became too thick and we walked.

We were in one of the regions on the outskirts of Bishkek called Novostroika or new construction. We had completely left the city, passed some fields, then encountered this community of simple brown boxes in various stages of construction. I could see pieces of hay stuck into the mud that formed the walls. Sheets of corrugated metal served as roofs. I tried to imagine someday paved roads, playgrounds and shops. But for now, it seemed naked.

I kept my eyes on my feet, where sticky brown mud mixed with grasses coated my black dress boots and splashed up onto my pants. I could see greenery coming up through the mud, and I felt the ridges we walked over. Despite the fact that we were clearly in a neighborhood, we were definitely walking over a field.

“Is this a field?” I asked.


“And what about the owner? Was he paid for his property?” I thought back to all the rural squatters who came to Bishkek (and also to Osh) following the revolution, settling onto other people’s fields, and demanding the right to build houses there. Was he one of them? He said he’d come to Bishkek a few years ago from the cattle-raising area of Naryn.

“A squatter took this property, built the walls of a home, and got the land registered. Then he sold it to me for $1000,” the young man said. He wore a waist-length thin black leather jacket and his brown skin was splotched.

I found that pretty disgusting, that someone could squat on another’s land, then sell his right to live there. I doubt the real owner of the field received anything at all. But the guilty party is already gone, probably seeking out the next squatting site.

“Such things happen all the time in this country,” he said. And he was right. I thought back to the swimming pool I’d used on Sunday that had somehow been taken away from the children’s home the previous owner had donated it to.

Among all the houses in the silent, empty neighborhood, his was one of the nicest. We arrived soaked in mud and dirt. But the two rooms inside were clean and carefully decorated, insulated with carpets and shyrdaks (felt rugs). A small green tree wrapped in gold and silver tinsel stood in the windowsill, a sign of the homeowners trying to create beauty.

Every day, this man and his wife walk through that mud to where they can catch a marshrutka. They take the long journey into town, together with the other poor immigrants in their neighborhood. He tries to build his beauty salon, she sews at a clothing factory. Together, they try to build themselves a life, and create hope for their future children.

This evening Zhenya called me to discuss her business’s development. She talks to me a lot about this subject, as she seems to somehow think I can foresee her prospects better than she can.

Her store is located on a riverbank. During the summer, people should stroll nearby and she wants to attract them to her shop with some outdoor tables and chairs and a freezer to sell ice cream.

She heard that Coca Cola provided free tables and chairs with their logo, then found out they’d only give them to cafes in the center of town. She could save the money, but that would mean she’d miss the summer season. So today she went to a bank to look into borrowing $1,000.

“It’s really easy and the price is quite cheap,” she said. “I’d like to do it. But I have a problem. They wanted my husband’s passport. I haven’t talked to my husband in years. I don’t even know where he is.”

I explained how according to the law, each spouse has the right to 50% of the other’s earnings and property.

“But I’m the one building the business,” she said. “I’m the one supporting our son. I figured he wouldn’t have any rights because it’s so clear he does nothing to support us.”

I told her that in her situation, perhaps it was a bit risky to remain married. He could always return and try to lay claim to what she’d built. She has looked into a divorce before. But in order to have it done quickly, she’d need to pay. And she refused to spend any money on the procedure.

“I mainly just stayed married because I thought if I wanted to go overseas someday, I’d have an easier time getting a visa if I was married.”

“They’d know anyway that you weren’t living together,” I said. “And if you leave your son behind while taking an overseas trip, that’s insurance enough that you’ll return.”

“So then what do I need a husband for?” she asked, in a decisive voice. “I just imagine myself searching for him, asking for his passport, telling him I want to take credit. He would be so thrilled, he’d tell me that obviously I can’t do anything without him, he would gloat over my situation.”

So it’s possible Zhenya might get a divorce in order to get a $1,000 loan.

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