Thursday, June 29, 2006


June 28, 2006

On Sunday, I joined Boris for one of his fabulous group trips out to nature. This time, he went to Ala Archa, for a hike to the waterfall – a place I hadn’t been before. It was a much needed and appreciated breath of fresh air.

A lot of other people had the same urge. The group filled up two buses. But as the only foreigner in the group, it was still a nice opportunity to practice Russian and to catch up with some of the frequent hikers I knew.

On the way there, we stopped at the Khan’s grave, a monument to Baitik Batir. He lived from 1820 to 1886 and was a leader of a Kyrgyz tribe. He is credited with freeing Kyrgyzstan from Khokand domination and uniting it with Russia.

The sandy brick structure includes arches, minarets, and rounded domes, much like a mosque. A pregnant woman in a sky and cloud-colored dress ran her hands over the bricks as she walked around the structure. She made several rounds, looking reverent, her dyed blond hair covered with a beige headscarf.

Boris told us that the monument is a holy site and is visited by women who can’t give birth or get married.

Some people in the group continued through the cemetery, long weeds and flowers rubbing against their legs, to see the tall, black metal structure honoring Batir’s assistant, Boshkoi Batir Ozber-bai. Others tried their luck at prayers, inserting money into a locked metal box, reaching their hands through the metal grate and holding them outstretched, wishing (presumably for a mate or a child).

An ostrich farm was located near the monument, where people could pay about a dollar to look at the ostriches imported from Australia, or buy an egg for $75.

Ala-Archa is just over twenty miles from Bishkek, but once in the park, it feels like being deep in the Alps. In 1985 it was made into a national park. Due to its glaciers, it is the coldest canyon in the area.

Because of its proximity to the capital and the good roads there, it receives a lot of visitors. The lot is always packed with cars. Not the Moskvichs and rumbling old buses of Sary Chelek, but Maximas, Opels, Audis, BMWs, VWs, Landrovers, and the clearly marked SUV of the International Red Cross.

There are two types of visitor to Ala-Archa – the picnicker and the hiker. Most visitors are picnickers. They find a spot with a view of the rushing river, claim their territory, and sitting there in front a constant supply of food for the entire day. Unfortunately, enough of these people lack environmental awareness that the picnic areas are littered with refuse.

The hikers don’t have to travel far to get away from the crowds. They disappear into the mountains and find remote, clean places to rest and lunch. They find fields of white, purple and yellow wildflowers bursting into bloom in the late morning sunlight. They feel the icy water running over stones as they scamper across streams. They feel the geological past as they cross fields of boulders sprouting moss. They appreciate the power of the mountains as they approach the jagged peaks.

I saw families seated on rocks or among wildflowers, enjoying self-catered picnics. I watched an old couple enthusiastically gathering wild herbs along the way.

The walk to the waterfall was largely uphill and challenging. It took almost two hours. When we got there, I sat with Feruza, an analyst at the electrical company, and her 12-year-old daughter sasha. I was also semi-supervising Bagdan, my friend’s 10-year-old son, who she’d sent on the trip alone.

We sat near the waterfall, where we could watch the water splashing from the rocks 50 meters up in a sunlit spray. It hit the shaded black rock mid-waterfall, then ran down in streams of white rivulets. Young people approached and stood against the falls, getting soaked for the sake of a memory or a photo. The numerous rapids that emerged from the falls extended their sound around us, like a song that we could stand in the middle of.

Everyone else was returning on the bus. But I’d brought my bike and planned to bike back to the city. So I walked back down ahead of schedule and began my 2.5 hour ride back home.

It was the first longer trip my new bike had taken. It handled the distance and the roughness pretty well. But I don’t feel like I got much exercise. It was almost all downhill. I never really thought it possible to coast almost nonstop for about 20 miles, but from Ala-Archa to Bishkek, it can be done. It felt more like a motorcycle ride, which wasn’t bad either.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

reading recommendations?

June 23, 2006

Lately I’ve been reading too many mediocre books and am longing for some books that will wow and inspire me, the kinds that one finishes with a sense of awe. I’m looking for books like those written by Wallace Stegner, TC Boyle, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Russian masters, Junichiro Tanizaki and Theodore Dreiser. If anyone has recommendations of fantastic, well-written and moving books, fiction or non-fiction, I’d appreciate the suggestions.

Since I am planning a visit to Nicaragua in the future, I’d also appreciate recommendations of books written in Spanish and/or about Nicaragua.


June 23, 2006

Last week, I got a new bike to replace the bike that got stolen, a red and black 21-speed with disc brakes. It’s wonderful to have wheels again and the ability to cycle around town raises my happiness index by several points. I had thought about continuing my Issyk-Kul journey this weekend but decided to take it easy since I’m heading to the States next weekend.

It’s nice to have some time to sit in front of the fan, to read, to write and to cook. I plan to attend water aerobics this afternoon and tomorrow will go on a hike and a bike ride to a nearby national park.

Last night I spoke to Zhenya and she was in a bad mood. She had wanted to go hiking on Sunday, but the $4.25 price was too much to allow both her and her son to go. The owner of the shop she rents is demanding she pay $120 that her deceased partner owed her.

“Hussein’s relatives sent me $500 to cover his debts,” she said. “But I already gave that away. It wasn’t enough. And I feel bad going back to his family, after they’ve already lost him, and saying that his debts were more than that. Maybe they will think I am deceiving them.”

At the same time, she risks losing her Chinese long-term tenants in the apartment she rents out because they are being constantly harassed by the police. A police officer came by, apparently to check passports, and saw that they had goods for their business stored in the apartment. He demanded money and they paid him $180. From that point, he hasn’t left them alone.

“Why don’t they just not open the door?” I asked.

“They don’t open the door any more. But they live on the first floor. And this offer comes and taps on the windows, pulls at the bars. They are afraid and they say they may have to leave the apartment because their nerves can’t take it anymore.”

When the officer is harassing them, they call Zhenya. Several times she has run over there and confronted the officer.

“He’s a young guy from the mountains, probably Talas or Naryn, and looks so evil. I think he would kill me if he could,” she said.

She went to the police department to complain.

“I told the officers at the intake center that an officer was harassing my tenants and was extorting money from them. They just looked at me and smiled, asked me how much money he was getting, as if they wanted to come get some themselves. At just about the same time, someone handed me a long article from the Evening Bishkek newspaper, in which it said that this was a racket and these officers, who are supposed to be controlling foreigners, take money and send portions of the money all the way up the management.”

For the first time, Zhenya brought up the possibility of leaving Kyrgyzstan. “All of this makes me think that this place is just a mess,” she said. “And it’s not getting better. It makes me want to not live here anymore. I know that Russia has its problems too, but the people there must be more civilized.”

That same day, our former Osh officer manager got onto on Osh-Moscow plane with her daughter and left her country of birth behind to build a new life in Russia. Singly or in pairs or as families, the exodus from Kyrgyzstan continues. Those who go alone usually send back money and may return. Those who take their families or children are usually gone for good. Their ambition and work ethic stifled in Kyrgyzstan, they take their skills out of this country, where they think they can put them to better use.

Lunch with a stolen colleague

June 22, 2006

This afternoon I met Ainara, a staff member I worked with in Osh, for lunch. Ainara is a smart, bright, energetic and hard-working person. Since I left, she had risen into a management role. One of her subordinates, Kenche, a man in his late twenties, trained as a surgeon, named his new-born daughter after her.

“I hope that she will be like you,” he told her.

In early January, less than two months after I’d left Osh, she was stolen and got married. I was especially surprised to hear it happened to her. Not only was she smart and modern, but she’d told me she had no interest in getting married. I asked her how it came about.

Her now husband, Kanatbek, had been her friend for the past five years. She said he’d asked her repeatedly to marry him, but she didn’t love him and she refused. At the time, she had been dating two other people.

One of the men she was seeing had offered to give her earrings, which is the sign of engagement. She refused, but agreed that in the spring, she might be ready.

On the evening she was stolen, she’d gotten together with Kanatbek and other mutual friends at a café. They asked her to go to the disco afterwards, then realized that they forgot money. So they proposed taking a taxi and stopping by Kanatbek’s home on the way to get money.

When they arrived at his house, the driver said he had another client and couldn’t wait. So he drove off, and they all accompanied Kanatbek to his door. When Ainara got to the threshold, she was then taken by force into the house, where his family was gathered, and they tried to put the scarf on her.

It turned out that not only Kanatbek, his family and friends, but also the taxi driver had known about this in advance.

“How did you react?” I asked.

“I cried,” she said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be taken in by force and to suddenly be in that situation. We were friends and I didn’t expect that from him at all.”

She told me that at first she refused. They put her in a room, by herself, for three or four hours, so she could think. I imagine she could hear all of the relatives through the wall.

“My brother and his wife and they told me I should make the decision myself.”

“Would they have supported you if you wanted to leave?” I asked.

“Yes.” She really does come from a comparatively modern, urban family.

Then her mother arrived, very upset, and wanted to take Ainara home.

“My mother likes Kanatbek and she’s told me in the past that he’s a good man and asked why I didn’t want to marry him. But she didn’t want me to be married in this way.”

“Why did you decide to agree?” I asked.

“If it had been a stranger, I definitely would have left, right away. Women didn’t used to have that choice. But now it’s possible to refuse, and even to go to court. But what kept me there was the thought of what his grandmothers would think about me getting up and walking out. They would say I was bad. And because we had been friends for so long, I knew his mother and his grandmothers. When my mother came and tried to take me back, I saw his mother cry.”

It was hard for me to understand why she considered the pain Kanatbek’s mother and grandmothers would feel due to his kidnapping victim refusing to dedicate her life to him more serious than her own pain of marrying a man she didn’t love.

“Did you think about your boyfriend at the time?” I asked.

“Yes, I thought about everyone. I knew I didn’t love Kanatbek, but I also knew that he was a good person, that he cared about me, and that he’d take good care of me. And seeing his mother crying had a strong impact on me.”

I think more than anything else, the role that older generations of women play in bride stealing appalls me. Why would a middle-aged woman, educated in a large city under the Soviet system (in a time in which bride stealing was banned) believe that her son has the right to kidnap a person and make her his bride? Why would she want a daughter-in-law brought into the family by force rather than by choice? Does she not realize that in her support of her son, she is supporting a tradition that puts her daughter at risk?

I actually spoke to a middle-aged Kyrgyz woman in Osh who had helped her son steal a wife by convincing the girl’s mother to have her stay. And then later, when her own daughter was stolen and the mother was devastated, it was her guilt at doing the same thing that made her give into the kidnapper’s mother. In effect, by helping their sons, they are sacrificing their daughters.

Apparently, Kanatbek must have been confident of his ability to convince Ainara, because they had already planned the wedding.

I asked Ainara what her life was like now. She said that Kanatbek moved back from Kazakhstan, where he’d been working, to live with her. His mother is in Kazakhstan, so they have the apartment to themselves. She had to adjust to doing household chores, which she never did before, but said that her husband helps sometimes.

“Before, my brother’s wife did everything. I would just help sometimes with the laundry on Sundays. But otherwise, after work, I was free. Now I have to cook and clean, but I’ve already gotten used to it.”

She said that her boyfriend, who she expected to marry, was very upset. But emotionally, she seemed to be doing OK. She looked the same as she’d always looked, dressed in trendy, tight-fitting clothing with matching accessories.

“Kanatbek isn’t at all jealous, which is good,” she said. “I can dress how I want to and go out with my friends.”

She’ll soon be entering her third month of pregnancy. I asked if she wanted to know the sex.

“No,” she said. “And Kanatbek doesn’t either. He just says he wants it to be as easy as possible for me.”

That’s surprisingly considerate, compared to many local men, who expect their wives to reproduce and demand sons.

Ainara is as energetic and hardworking as always, planning to work as long as she can before the birth.

I find it fascinating to think that as a result of this crime, six months from now, a person will be born who never would have existed otherwise, as well as succeeding generations of people who never would have come into being. At the same time, the child that would have been born, had Ainara married her boyfriend, and all of his or her descendants, are now erased from possible existence. From one invitation to a disco on a cold, January evening.

Another day in the heat

June 22, 2006

Today, for the third day in a row, the sun beat down, heating our surroundings like a clay oven.

“I looked at the thermometer, in the shade, before the sun had fullen risen, and it already said 35 degrees,” Shavkat said.

“My dishes were in the shade and they were hot to the touch,” Nigora said.

I made it to the central market today and was stuck by the scent of ripe melons, rotting garbage, and sweat. I saw a cow’s head, with a bloody neck, lying on the ground near a butcher’s stand. A little later, a cart, piled with three cows’ heads passed me, the appendages shaking from the moment.

Basil, peppers, green onions, eggplant and cauliflower piled high on tables into a row of greenery. Apricots, cherries and peaches lined the fruit aisle. Raspberries were sold at the end, from large alumimum vats, the vendors with red hands, dyed from the juices.

In the afternoon, we ate peaches and apricots in the office. In the evening, our departing office manager fried strips of eggplant in egg, then used them to wrap slices of tomato and garlic. Nigora had made me this oily, but delicious creation, for breakfast this morning.

We had to hire a few new staff members today. We chose three people out of 23, one of whom came from a rural area outside of Nookat. Her family paid her tuition with the potato harvest, an especially productive Holland potato.

In the evening, I rested with the family on the porch. Over plov and our season’s first watermelon, we heard the stories Shavkat repeats over and over again – about his love of nature and the simple life (Nigora threatens to marry him off to a Kyrgyz women in a pasture during his retirement), about how he used to work non-stop during the summer, followed by almost nine months of playing cards, about how he wanted to start a tour company, but never felt that the situation in the country was secure enough.

“Sometimes I’m not very decisive,” he said. “If I was alone, I could be decisive, but I feel responsible for my family and for all the people who would work with me.”

“And in the time that you think about something, the opportunity goes by and we age,” Nigora said.

The soccer game between the U.S. and Ghana playing in the corner of the patio, slowly garnered our attention. Ghana scored its first goal, the U.S. followed suit, then the Ghanaians pulled ahead 2-1.

“The Americans have a bad trainer,” Habib said.

“No, it’s because of their psychology,” Shavkat said. “They are lazy and don’t run enough.”

“The Africans play so well because they know how to move. They are such good dancers,” Nigora said, as she wiggled her shoulders forward while seated.

I miss the idle evening talk, the way that dinner flowed into evening which flowed into bedtime, the evening breeze that lifts the lace curtain, the wind that knocks sweet, round, firm apricots, like grape tomatoes, from a neighbor’s tree onto Nigora and Shavkat’s roof for consumption.

The call of the muezzin

June 21, 2006

I’m back in Osh, where I find the most welcoming sound to be the call of the muezzin. It rang out so clearly in the early evening that I could hear the timbre of the singer’s voice. It sounded as though he were calling from a neighborhood rooftop. Now, again, in the evening, as I prepare for bed, I hear the call again, marking the phases of the day, allowing residents to set their life to a rhythm.

I flew down in a Yak-40, with an airline I try to avoid. Usually I travel on Altyn Air and while the planes are small, I’m generally not focused on the plane’s ability to stay in flight during the journey. But on this little thing, which passengers entered by crawling into the plane’s belly, I constantly worried about the plane’s capacity to stay above the mountain peaks. I tried to distract myself by listening to my ipod. But when we suddenly dropped and began to shudder from side to side, I paused the ipod and reached out for the seat in front of me.

Our driver, Malan, met me at the airport. He was thrilled to have received a 60 percent raise recently and was in very good humor. He’d been thinking of going to Russia to work, though his wife hadn’t wanted to let him go.

“My wife is very content now that I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “And my son is very happy as well. When he heard that I might go to Russia, tears welled in his eyes.”

As we entered town, we saw a giant truck with standing men packed into the open-air back, many of them wearing Uzbek caps. They looked stoically at the road ahead.

“What’s that?” I asked Malan.

“They are going to the cemetery to bury someone. The casket is lying on the floor, among them.”

He told me that Muslims use caskets only to take someone to the cemetery. They don’t bury people in boxes.

“When a man gets old and is preparing to die, he’s supposed to buy a nice white material, that will be used to wrap his body. And the money used to buy that material should come only from honest, hard work. One shouldn’t use money that they got by deceitful means.”

I’ve never paid much attention to cemeteries in the south. They somehow remain much more inconspicuous than northern cemeteries.

“In Kazakhstan and in northern Kyrgyzstan, people build memorials from brick, they make them almost like homes,” Shavkat told me. “In the south, we basically just put people in the ground, maybe with a headstone.”

I came home to Nigora and Shavkat’s. We spent the evening looking at the photos of Nigora’s Issyk-Kul journey I’d brought them on a disk and eating their second-to-last duck, which they’d killed for my arrival.

The boys are all finished with exams and trying to figure out what to do for the summer. Habib got a job as the administrator of an internet club, until he showed up late the first two days and the owner gave the job away to a girl.

“I was tired after my exams and wanted to rest before going right to work,” he explained.

Nigora is continuing her work selling dishes at the market, and Shavkat is preparing for the tourists he expects in the coming month or two.

I’m back in my old room, that I lived in for ten months. The two beds that made up the double bed have been separated and I’ll be sleeping at an angle perpendicular to how I always slept before. I look up at the top of the wardrobe, where my stacks of books gathered dust, at the deep windowsill, emptied of my scattered belongings, at the stovetop, where my TV once stood.

I lived in a significant portion of my life in this room in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, but all the signs of me have been erased. It’s as though I’m sneaking in as a ghost, to see how I may have lived in a former life.

Outside on the patio, I can hear Nigora describing the photos to Shavkat and Faruh, as they appear on the computer screen. For once, she’s the source of knowledge and the adventurer. She’s seen something none of them have. And a quiet pride fills her voice as to listens to and responds to her family’s interest.

In Memory of the Dead

June 20, 2006

Today I paid a short visit to a pominka, a memorial held 40-days after a death. Zhenya organized it in memory of her Turkish business partner, who died unexpectedly of an untreated ulcer.

She asked me to come to the store she shared with him sometime between 2 and 8 today. The shop, called Galaxy during Soviet times, still looked the same as when Hussein had been alive. On one side was the grocery section that he owned and managed, and has since been taken over by someone else. On the other side, Zhenya runs a shop selling dishes, cosmetics, toiletries and school supplies.

Behind the counter, in her section, Zhenya had set up a small table and chairs. She’d placed an order from a Turkish café near her house for lentil soup, rice rolled in grape leaves, yogurt, a dip made with sour cream, garlic and herbs, sesame-seed bread, and beet salad.

There were several visitors there besides myself – two middle aged men, a couple that lives across from Zhenya, and a younger couple. I never know how to act at such gatherings, so I started out quiet and sober, feeling a bit uncomfortable that I never actually met Hussein, though I heard a lot about him through Zhenya and I know he was important to her.

Zhenya had placed two photos of Hussein within view of us – as though he was looking at the people who had come to the meal in his honor. In one of the pictures, he stood in front of shelves of vodka and juice in his shop. He was wide-shouldered and serious, his lips pressed together.

I looked over at the shelves where vodka still stood. Did he know that the business wouldn’t work out? Or would he have been able to make it work? Was that uncertainty part of the stress that killed him?

“It’s not profitable enough here,” Zhenya told her guests. “This is a poor region with not many buyers, but a lot of competition. We are going to look for another place to move to.”

She told us that the store owner would rent out the premises to a sewing factory. “That will be profitable,” she told us. “They will have regular orders from Dordoi and this is a large and well-lighted space. And there is no competition around here, plus plenty of available workers.”

Zhenya is waiting for her assistant to return from Naryn to free her up so that she’ll have some time to look for a new space.

On Sunday, I celebrated Zhenya’s 34th birthday with her, her son, her neighbor, a friend, and two other children at Karisma, a Turkish restaurant. Because her birthday fell so close to Hussein’s pominka, she said she didn’t want any loud celebration.

“I wouldn’t have done anything at all if you hadn’t called me and asked about my birthday,” she told me.

She chose the café because of its quiet, park-side location and the fact that it didn’t usually play music. She was upset that I brought her a homemade chocolate cake and her neighbor brought her flowers. “I didn’t want a big celebration!” she insisted, and unsuccessfully tried to send the cake and the flowers home.

We had a quiet, but pleasant dinner, with lentil soup, iskander kebab, grilled meat skewers and Turkish bread.

Two weeks from now, the owners of the Turkish restaurant where Zhenya ordered the pominka food are packing up and returning to Turkey.

“They’ve been here three years and don’t see how one can earn a living in Kyrgyzstan,” Zhenya said.

But Zhenya just marked 34 years of making a life and a living in Kyrgyzstan. Hopefully her spirit and entrepreneurism will bring her many more.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Lost History

June 18, 2006

I actually have prepared blog entries since May 23rd. But unfortunately, I lost them all in a computer glitch. So to sum up the past several weeks in very abbreviated form: my bicycle got stolen, my mother came for an enjoyable one-week visit, I showed Salima Bishkek and Osh for the first time, I visited Sary-Chelek, a remote lake in the south of Kyrgyzstan, and I spent a few days in Osh, where I had a chance to spend time with the family and to catch up with some of our wonderful staff members there.

One of the most interesting events of this week is that one of my colleagues, Olesia, gave birth. She is an ethnic Ukrainian and was posted in the south of the country. I heard secondhand that she neglected to use protection when she thought a sexual partner might have good genes. And I also heard secondhand that the baby’s father is an already married man from the south – either Kyrgyz or Uzbek. She’s planning to raise the child on her own.

She was at work until just days before the deliver. On Wednesday morning, our office manager called her at the birthing house, the name for government-run maternity hospitals.

“She sounds like she’s in a lot of pain,” Kasiet told us. “She asked me if it was supposed to be so painful.”

“Can she get some medicine?” I asked.

“I told her to ask for some,” Kasiet said. “They certainly won’t offer it to her.”

I later found out that she went to the hospital alone. She doesn’t have a partner and even so, men have mixed views about attending births here. And she and her mother seem to be estranged.

A few hours later, another colleague, Janna, tried to called Olesia on her cell phone, but it was turned off. It was disturbing to be thinking of Olesia alone and in pain, and to not be able to do anything.

Finally, at 3 in the afternoon, Olesia called Janna and told her she’d given birth to a boy. We planned to visit the next morning.

I talked to some of my colleagues about support during childbirth. Our office manager, Kasiet, said she was alone. Her husband refused to go with her.

I told her I’d be offended if my partner refused me that support during a difficult time.

“They wait outside,” she said. “And it’s different here. Eastern men have a different mentality. And until just recently, hospitals didn’t let anyone at all in while women were giving birth.”

It seems to me to be too easy to stand outside and to just smile at the result. It doesn’t allow men the knowledge of what it really takes to produce a human being. And it leads their decisions on whether or not to have more offspring to be based on incomplete information.

“Some people say that when a man attends a childbirth, he can marvel at what his wife has gone through and will have even more respect for her,” my coworker, Aizhana, said, who gave birth six months ago. “But other times, they are so grossed out that they aren’t attracted to their wife anymore.”

“If that were the case, wouldn’t they then be unattracted to any woman, knowing that if they got her pregnant, they’d see the same thing?” I asked.

A male Uzbek colleague said that he’d refuse to support a future wife in childbirth.

“I heard of a guy who had served in Chechnya and had seen a lot of blood. His wife talked him into coming into the delivery room with her. And when he saw all that blood, something clicked in his brain and he went crazy. Men just can’t handle that much stress.”

I told him it was common in the States for men to be there and I’d never heard of anyone going crazy.

“And what would you prefer if you were in great pain,” I asked Damir. “To see the supportive faces of people you love and who can ensure you get the care you need, or to be alone with a doctor who wants bribes?”

“But none of our ancestors did that,” Kasiet said. “It’s not something they’ve been trained to do.”

“It’s not a genetic pre-conditioning,” I said. “Whether or not one’s grandfather was in the delivery room has no influence on how a modern man can handle the situation.”

I have a Russian co-worker, Denis, whose wife is expecting their child within the next few weeks. He plans to be in the delivery room with her, as he was for their first child. And he plans to take leave to help care for the new child. His Kyrgyz wife was lucky to find someone evidently much more caring and supportive than the average local man.

The next morning, we went to the 4th birthing house. There are 6 government run birthing houses in Bishkek, as well as a couple of private clinics. I asked Denis how people chose between them.

“Generally, people go to where they have acquaintances or where they can make a deal to ensure they’ll receive good care.”

“Is there a significant difference in quality at the private clinics?”

“My wife gave birth to our first child at a private clinic. What’s nice there is the level of service. There is more privacy, the food is better and the staff really attend to you. But the problem is that they often lack the equipment needed for problems and emergencies. So if something goes wrong, they end up transporting the patient to a government hospital anyway.”

The Fourth Birthing House was a massive, run-down, Soviet-era building. We went through an unmarked door and climbed the stairs up several floors. It smelled of cigarette smoke and overcooked cabbage and buckwheat. At the appropriate landing, we found two doors bolted shut. A small window, like a take-out counter, was open in one of them. Above the window was a handwritten list of the patients located there. We found Olesia Ovseenko there, next to her roommate’s name. Above that, a bright pink piece of paper announced that as of January 2006, by law, all services related to birth were provided free of charge.

Janna stuck her head through the window and asked someone to call Olesia. Olesia walked to the window in a blue, green, red and yellow robe. Her face was pallid, but she was good-spirited as usual. She greeted the group of 11 colleagues, then went to get her baby to show us.

She held the 3.7 kilogram, one-day old baby up through the window to show us. He was swaddled tightly, like a straightjacket covered with a cocoon. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. Only his tiny face was visible. Everyone reached into their pockets and stuffed 50 and 200 som bills into the swaddling.

There is a tradition here in which people give money or gifts to those who give them good news or show them something new. It seems to be practiced most frequently with the news of a birth. Even if someone orally tells you about a birth, you are supposed to offer a small gift to that bearer of information. Similarly, when we went to Issyk-Kul with Nigora, the taxi driver asked her for a gift since he was showing her the national treasure for the first time (regardless that we were paying him to do so). She gave him a chocolate-covered wafer.

After a while, the men left, leaving Olesia to speak to her female colleagues through the window. In the meantime, other visitors arrived and stuck their faces through the window, blocking our view of Olesia, as they searched for their loved ones.

While Olesia seems to be alone in terms of family, she’s surrounded by people who care about her. She told us that many colleagues came almost immediately after the birth and that the word had already spread as far as Jalalabat, in southern Kyrgyzstan. One group of colleagues plans to buy her a stroller. We will be buying her a baby bed.

The mothers on our team worry about Olesia living alone with a small baby. They offered to come by and show her how to give the baby a bath.

Olesia told us how she tried to change a diaper for the first time.

“I have no idea how to do anything,” she said. “It got all over the place. To be honest, he scares me a bit.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it and you’ll learn everything,” the mothers assured her.

They handed her yogurt, a banana and cottage cheese and urged her to eat.

“Drink lots of broth,” they told her. “It’s warm and it gets your milk going.”

Aizhana told her to stay warm and to keep her mouth closed to protect her teeth.

“What was that about the teeth?” I asked her, as we were leaving.

“A mother loses a lot of vitamins and Calcium and that makes the teeth weak. It’s important to not drink cold things and to try to keep the teeth protected so they don’t get damaged.”

“For how long?” I asked, surprised at this new theory.

“I tried to keep my lips closed for a month after delivery,” she said.

I remembered when she came to the office to show her new arrival, that she wore a mask over her mouth. I figured she might have had a cold. But perhaps, really, she was just protecting her teeth.

Lake Sary Chelek

Koumiss (fermented mare's milk) vendor, selling her goods from inside a yurt

Lake at end of Grigorovsky canyon

Getting a mud treatment at an Issyk-Kul Sanatorium

A Family Praying on Souleymane Mountain - Osh