Friday, November 03, 2006

Glimpses of Bishkek

October 31, 2006

It’s been a busy week or so. My boss has been on vacation, so I’ve been taking over her work. But even with a double workload, the quality of life is so much better here than in Nicaragua and I treasure and enjoy all the small moments.

One afternoon I met my friend Zhenya at Bishkek’s first modern shopping center – called Vefa. Seeing a chocolatier, Gap, Benetton and Levi’s stores, and a supermarket in Bishkek shocked me. Zhenya’s son Algubek loved the transparent elevator and Zhenya marveled at the lights that hung three stories down from the ceiling. A children’s play area on the top floor looked like a Chuck E Cheese, but only cost 50 cents per hour. There was a movie theater (playing cheap, discarded Western movies – we saw the Perfumier and walked out after 45 minutes) and a fast food court. But the so-called fast food didn’t include any Western giants. Most of the stands had a Turkish influence and several sold English tea in glazed ceramic Turkish mugs.

I was pretty amazed to realize there are enough affluent people in Bishkek to support such a venture. The local population seems to have embraced it. I saw several people I knew there – locals who are professionals, but not especially wealthy. Like teenagers hanging out at the shopping mall, Vefa provides a place to casually meet and see something new.

I feel very at home in my neighborhood, comfortably leaving and entering at all times of the day and night. The young boys greet me, making me feel like I’ve become enough of a neighborhood fixture. Old women sit on benches, wearing thick socks and scarves around their heads, talking or people-watching for hours at a time. I watched a family walk across a busy street – the patriarch wearing a tall, white felt kalpak. And here, that doesn’t attract any attention.

Sunday was a beautiful fall day, the bright yellow and crinkled brown leaves falling down like a constant, light rainshower. Outside my window, I watched children in mismatched clothing playing on the slide – the one toy that the metal thieves didn’t take apart. They would bunch together at the bottom of the slide, hitting one another like carts of a train joining together, laughing hysterically at the pretended accidental crash. They repeated this over and over. I think they just wanted to be part of a group hug.

Today, upon coming home from work, I stopped when I saw two soldiers in the road, holding glow in the dark red batons. They were holding up traffic to allow a troop to cross the street. The soldiers (all male) came out of one building, in formation, dressed in green khaki, and proudly singing a song in Kyrgyz. They marched into the other building, still singing. I know my friend Gulnara’s brother serves there – that the soldiers are mostly just kids for whom studies didn’t work out. But it was nice to see them proud and professional, even when crossing a street in the dark of night.

The day after tomorrow, massive protests are planned against the President. The same opposition leaders who put Bakiyev in power are now regretting it. And it is they who are protesting. The government is issuing statements that criticism should be constructive, that major disruptions won’t be allowed, while at the same time preparing empty hospital beds in Bishkek.

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