Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Short Trip to Osh

November 26, 2006

I made a one-day trip down to Osh, the first time I’d been there in months. Enroute, I paid a bribe for the first time in my life.

The flight to Osh was sold out and I didn’t have a ticket. But I figured I’d go to the airport and see if someone didn’t show up. The guard told me yes, they had a seat available, but I would have to pay extra. He asked if I knew how much a ticket cost. I did. He said it would cost more than that price.

“But I’ll need a receipt,” I said.

“There won’t be a receipt.”

“But my office requires one,” I said.

“There won’t be one,” he repeated.

“OK, then I’ll have to get in touch with our office manager.”

So, in front of the several officers and the passengers seated nearby, I called our office manager and asked what to do.

“He wants extra money,” I told her.

“What do you mean?”

“A bribe.”

I then handed my cell phone to the officer so that our office manager could negotiate the bribe directly with him. He handed it back to me and she told me how much to give him.

“Where do I pay?” I asked.

“Put the money, all of it, in your passport,” he said.

I was supposed to hand my passport to him to check, and putting the money in there was supposed to be discreet. But I was far from discreet. After I’d already made a public discussion and phone call, I handed him my passport with the wad of money clearly sticking out. I almost felt sorry for him. He’d probably not had to deal with this much trouble to get his cut before.

I am usually very strongly anti-corruption and anti-bribe. But in this case, I didn’t feel so bad about it. The people who bought their seats in the usual manner didn’t pay anything extra. The staff could have just told me the plane was full, as it was. But instead they were selling the seats reserved for crew. If the employees had an agreement amongst themselves that they’d stand for the one-hour flight in exchange for some extra pay (I expect their salaries aren’t very high), and I’d get to my destination, I was OK with that.

I would have had to sit scrunched in a little dark place at the back of the plane. But a man went back there instead, leaving me with his standard seat.

Despite the falling snow and the icy roads, the plane took off. One hour later, I was in Osh.

Our driver, Malan, met me at the airport, dressed in a fur cap. A new shiny green mosque glimmered off the airport parking lot. A thin layer of snow covered the surrounding mountains. But the ground was clear. On the way into the city, I asked Malan for news.

He said the city had been quiet during the protests. There were only pro-Bakiyev protests, and even they were mostly just people who had been forced to participate.

“They rounded up all the government employees and the students and told them they had to go protest,” he said. “My seventh grade son came home and told me they only had two lessons at school one day. When I asked why he said it was because the teachers took all the older students to the protest.”

At first glance, Osh seemed more run down than I remembered, the houses plain and sagging, the scenery bleak, the people dressed in dull, dark colors. But it didn’t take long before the soul of Osh, its people, showed me the spirit that I love.

I attended an opening of a new business. And there, people filed into the premises – old men in beards and ankle-length robes, old women wrapped in kerchiefs of grey, pilled wool and colorful scarves. They sat out in the cold, without complaint, to watch young women in red dance, to listen to music and to speeches. Children blew pink bubbles with gum and bounced on their heels. Passengers stopped and peered through the gate at the festivities. They filed inside and the babushkas offered up a prayer to bless the premises.

A colleague told me about attending the opening of a car dealership in Bishkek. “Only in Kyrgyzstan could you get 250 people to attend such an event,” he said.

I was impressed by the professionalism of the event. A business was opening in Osh and this was a good thing for the people and the city. They’d have another service available to them, competition increased, and several more decent-paying jobs were made available. It was heartening, a signal of hope and development in often difficult conditions.

After the ceremony, after all that time in the cold, people filed in to look at the new premises. This would have been the time to give people information, to open accounts, to capture new customers. But after allowing people a brief look at the premises, the staff all went off for a celebratory lunch at a nearby café. If people wanted to initiate services with this business, they’d have to come back. In that sense, customer orientation was still missing. However, as competition grows, the customer comes closer and closer to being valued.

During lunch, the housekeeper, a friendly and hardworking woman, approached me. She wanted to know if I could approach the director on her behalf. She was widowed, her father dead, her two brothers poor like her, and she couldn’t support her three children on her $70/month salary.

Unfortunately, low wages continue to exist in Osh. Many people earn $25 a month for full-time work. I was recently talking to some employees and asking about development in Osh. They assured me that the city is developing, that things are getting better.

“But are people still making $25-30 a month?” I asked.


“If an owner of a large business can earn several thousand dollars a month profit, why would he not raise those wages?”

“Because there isn’t a point in doing so as long as there are still people willing to work for that amount.”

“Wouldn’t it be in his interest for his employees to be healthy, to be able to fully dedicate themselves to the job, and not have to worry about how to survive?”

“Maybe. But that type is thinking is still new in this area.”

So this particular housekeeper is doing well by market standards. But with the market rates for goods and services, she finds she can’t support her family. And she was unable to send her first grade daughter to school this year.

So, like usual, I found Osh to be a melding of color and blackness, of hope and despair, of struggle and success, of promise and shame. It’s still the city that captivated me once and captivates me still. I hope to be able to spend some more time there in the coming weeks.

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