Saturday, March 04, 2006

A visit to Dordoi

This morning my friend Zhenya invited me over for home-baked pizza. Her 9:30 a.m. call pulled me out of bed on a Saturday morning.

“Come on over!” she said. “I’m already starting to cook.”

“Could we keep our original 11 a.m. agreement?” I asked. “I just got up.”

When I arrived shortly after 11, the pizza was almost done. She’d topped the thick, pastry-like dough with mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, pineapple, black olives and ham.

“Our country is kind of unstable these days, isn’t it?” she asked me.

“Why?” I asked.

She told me that two deputies had been shot recently. One was shot not far from my apartment building, at noon as he got into his car. “It happened in front of everyone,” she said. But I hadn’t heard about it, nor was the killer caught.

Construction is apace on the future deputy apartment building. I thought it would bring security to my neighborhood. But maybe it will just bring more shootouts.

“People are on edge,” Zhenya said. “The other day, a balloon popped in my store. A man became frightened, thought it was someone shooting. He momentarily cowered, raising his arm over his head.”

Over slices of pizza, she told me about her new store, now in operation for four months. She’s been asking me to come visit it for ages and I think I’ll do so tomorrow. She hired two salesgirls, sisters.

She complained that one is illiterate and she wants to replace her. She pulled out the accounts to show me. She’d corrected all the salesgirls mistakes with green pen. She’d written moloko (milk), malako. She’d written spasm instead of jigsaw puzzle. She made all kinds of mistakes that even I, as a non-native Russian speaker, could probably avoid.

“If she was Kyrgyz, I could understand,” Zhenya said. “But she’s Russian. I asked her if she went to school and she says yes, but I can’t believe it. She’s illiterate.”

Zhenya herself controls the store – opening and closing it and taking a minibus almost daily to the Dordoi market to buy whatever products they are running out of.

“I need to go there after lunch to stock up on things for the March 8th holiday,” she said. She expected there to be demand for cosmetics and perfume before International Women’s Day. When I told her I needed to buy a tinkling wrap around skirt for my eastern dance class, she invited me to accompany her.

We set off for the market in gorgeous, sunny, spring-like weather. People seemed to walk with a lighter step, as if the newly green branches of the willow extended its new life to the city residents. We boarded a marshrutka and stayed on until the last stop. Dordoi, a huge mass of giant, iron containers, is located on the edge of the city.

We first sought out my bellydancing gear. I know that lots of people make their living at Dordoi, from low-income small entrepreneurs to incredibly wealthy traders. A metal container can sell for as much as $40,000. The boxes, freezing cold in winter and burning hot in summer, provide many with a path to security and/or wealth.

On the last weekend before March 8th, considered one of the biggest holidays of the year, buyers packed the market.

“My God, look at the dishes row,” Zhenya said. People thronged the rows like ants around a fresh crumb. When Zhenya stopped momentarily, we were bumped into by buyers, by a baby cart filled with round loaves of lepushka, by a young boy pushing a cart he’d fill with goods, by a man selling meat-filled samsi out of plastic bags. There was no room for stopping.

I found what I needed, then we went to purchase items for Zhenya’s store. It was my first time shopping with a vendor. I knew that thousands of people did the same thing as Zhenya every day – came to Dordoi to find items they could sell at a higher margin in the city center. I enjoyed seeing how she went about it.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said, referring to the area of the market we were in. “It’s too expensive. The cheapest place is where the Chinese vendors sell their things. Not that many people know about it yet.”

We went to another part of the market, where indeed, almost all the vendors were Chinese. They spoke broken, barely comprehensible Russian. But they were friendly, helpful, and sold cheap goods for rock-bottom prices.

“How much are these wholesale?” Zhenya asked, pointing at some nylons.

“Ten som,” a short Chinese man said. That was 25 cents.

“I’ll take 120,” Zhenya said.

She leaned over to me. “I can sell them for 40 som,” she said.

Behind the counter, I saw some plastic bags with the Dollar Store logo. The market was like a giant dollar store, but with most of the goods under a quarter instead of a dollar.

Next she bought 30 bottles of nail polish for 30 cents each, followed by imitation Nivea and L’oreal mascara, glittering Chinese eyeshadow, flowered hair ties for 20 cents each, bracelets for mere pennies, ribbons and perfume.

The Chinese imitations of the famous perfumes and brand-name cosmetics were extremely convincing by the packaging. The only way I could tell they were fact was by the grammatical mistakes in the English text. But a local would never notice that.

Zhenya told me about a Kyrgyz man who recently came in to buy perfume for the holiday.

“He was looking at the different bottles and trying to decide which to buy. He asked me where it was from. I told him Poland.”

“You lied?” I asked. I frequently ask where the goods I’m buying are from and hoped I received honest answers.

“I can’t say China. If I say China, nobody will buy my goods. Everyone is afraid of China. They are afraid it’s poor quality and will break. It’s not like Chinese goods in the West. However, it should be obvious to him that it’s a Chinese product. If it was original perfume, Chanel or Christian Dior, it wouldn’t cost $1.25 and it wouldn’t be packaged in a plastic container inside the box.”

I frowned. How would a Kyrgyz who has never seen an original Chanel know?

“So he bought all five perfumes,” she continued, “saying he’d let his women choose which one they liked best. He bought one for his mother, wife, daughters. It was good for both of us. He thought he got a Polish product and I sold my goods with a 100% markup.” She smiled. The first few months involved some trial and error as she figured out what people wanted and how much they’d pay. But with time she was gaining confidence and seemed to be having fun.

As long as I was in the cheapest part of the market and with an expert buyer, I bought a four-piece stacking set for the babushka I adopted. I plan to fill the containers with candies, cookies, fruits and nuts and give them to her for the holiday.

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