Monday, August 21, 2006

Life in Talas

August 4, 2006

Day four in Talas and I’m starting to feel at home in this little town. Or I should say, in my yurt in my village 20 kilometers from town. I planned to move to a place closer to the center, but my yurt and the family that runs this complex grew on me and now I’m staying.

I’ve settled into a very comfortable evening routine. Upon coming home, I go to my yurt and change into comfortable clothes. Then, while it’s still light, I sit on a hillside swing and read with a view of the garden, flowers and mountains. I watch Saiagul, a young hostess, picking strawberries for dinner. I see her friend and companion Makpal gather armfuls of round, red tomatoes and long, green cucumbers. These children, probably early or pre-teens, do most of the serving. They are eager, anxious, excited and wanting to please. I already miss Ulkiss, a 2nd year university student who studies traditional Kyrgyz music. She was here my first few days, then returned home to her parents in Talas.

Adil, the white-beared patriarch of the family and Farmer-Hero of the Soviet Union, strolls up and down the cobblestone path, using his cane. “I have a feeling the air is cleaner higher up,” he tells me, then welcomes me to eat apples and strawberries right off the trees and plants.

The girls call me to dinner at 8. The main dish is always accompanied by apples, watermelon, home-baked bread, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, homemade raspberry or blackcurrant jam, and cream made from cow’s milk. After dark, I work on my computer in the dining room, make a cross-ocean cell phone call while appreciating the wonders of technology that can connect Urgochkor to another continent, then fall asleep on a pile of mats with a view of the stars through my yurt’s open roof.

A few things I’ve noticed about Talas:

1. Manas, the legendary folk hero, is incredibly important here. Both of the bank directors I visited sit in front of a giant painting of Manas. When a local employee gave me a lift, I saw a Manas placard hanging from his rearview mirror. Talas is home to the Manas Complex and everyone I met asks 1. Have I been to the Manas complex? and 2. Have I been to Besh Tash national park? I haven’t been to either, but hope to reach both before I leave.

2. Almost everyone with a plot of land grows beans, but almost no one eats them. When I tell people that I’d like to buy some of the famous Talas beans, they invariably ask: To eat them? I’m not sure what other purpose there could be. I suppose they think I might like to plant them, as they do. After an unsuccessful search at the market, I finally managed to buy one kilo of beans from a man who buys beans from the locals and exports them to Russia. By special request, my guesthouse cooked me some beans for dinner last night. They didn’t seem to know what to do with them – how to spice them, what to mix with them. They were just boiled red beans, but I still liked them.

3. This is a very Kyrgyz area, probably the most authentically Kyrgyz area I’ve spent time in in Kyrgyzstan. The population is overwhelmingly Kyrgyz, people speak primarily in Kyrgyz, and signs, which are usually bilingual, are sometimes in Kyrgyz only. While most people still use the old Soviet names for streets and villages, the signs only have the new Kyrgyz versions. I hear traditional Kyrgyz names that I haven’t heard before, and koumiss (fermented mare’s milk, usually found in yurts along mountain roads) is sold all over, even in cafes in the center of town.

4. The people seem to be more reserved than in other areas. When I ride my bike into town and wave at the children, they don’t respond, but just stare. The adults have a similar reaction.

5. Family celebrations, called toi or ash are very important and are extremely expensive. It’s considered normal for a family to spend a third of their entire income on tois. Even spending half or more is OK. I asked when a toi is held. “When a baby is born, when a baby turns 40 days, when a baby walks or talks, for a wedding, to mark a new home, for a 40th, 50th, 60th birthday or anniversary. For anything,” a local employee told me. I asked why they were so expensive. “In Osh, they kill and serve a sheep, which cost 3,000 som ($75). Here they kill a cow or horse (costing $250-750). It’s a big difference,” he told me. Obviously, these regular and large expenses make it more difficult for a family to build up capital. I hope they find their tois extremely enjoyable.

Today I met a man who proudly introduced me to his four-year-old son. He kept
prodding his son to ask me questions, reminding him this was a real American, he should appreciate the opportunity. The son shyly slunk away.

“He’s going to be proud of himself now,” his father told me. “He loves to watch American movies on our satellite TV, especially futuristic movies, that show the year 2015 or 2030. He asks me if life is really like that in America and I tell him it’s fantasy, but he doesn’t know what that means. He thinks people really live like that.” And now he’d met a product of that society. I supposed I looked pretty boring in comparison to what he expected.

This same family had a 9-month old daughter. I could see she wasn’t wearing diapers and I asked the parents when they stopped using diapers.

“We barely used them at all,” the mother said. “They are bad for kids.” She looked at me strangely, as though wondering why I would expect diapers to be used. When I told her that people in the U.S. often use them for 2-2.5 years, the whole family laughed.

I saw some statistics recently that showed the increase in the age of potty-training and it’s relation to the diaper-making business. It’s an interesting example of how a commercial industry can affect an entire society’s child-rearing and health habits.

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