Monday, February 26, 2007

Goodbye Kyrgyzstan

I have now left Kyrgyzstan, my home for the last 2.5 years. I’m sitting at the Almaty airport, waiting to depart for Frankfurt, then the U.S. and later, Latin America.

Today I twice heard the message that locals want more order – they are tired of the protests and the uncertainty. The woman who I went to for a manicure used to live in Tashkent. She moved to Bishkek a few years ago. I asked which city she liked better.

“Tashkent,” she said unequivocably. She said the city is beautiful, clean, orderly, and that the Uzbeks have a unique culture and outlook. “Of course, there is less freedom there,” she said. “Bishkek is more democratic. However, after a certain point, more freedom isn’t needed.”

A few hours later, the taxi driver taking me home said something similar. “My brother was talking to someone in China and asking what needed to be done to have stability here,” he said. “The Chinese man said that the president needs to give orders to shoot two or three protestors. Once he’d do that, people would be afraid and order would be installed.”

I leave Kyrgyzstan with the same warm and respectful feelings I developed upon arrival. The taxi driver who took me to the Almaty airport asked me what I didn’t like about Bishkek. “Nothing,” I said, realizing how rare it is to find a city where I like everything. Upon further thought, I came up with some things I didn’t like – corruption, drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians, city officials who don’t clear, salt, or sand icy streets. But overall, I had a wonderful, wonderful experience living in Kyrgyzstan. Except for a couple of bike nabbings, which happened when I was out of sight, I had no problems with crime in my entire time there. And that despite frequently walking and biking everywhere, and even biking around the whole of Issyk-Kul alone. Besides crime, I also had virtually no negative encounters with people.

Kyrgyzstan has its weak points. But it also has so many riches that I hope will bring it success in the future. Mainly, these include amazing, virtually untouched nature, the beautiful Issyk-Kul, great trekking and skiing, intelligent, cultured people, a kind and hospitable culture, a low of labor and living, fresh, natural fruits, vegetables, beef and dairy, and an openness to the world.

The last few days have been a whirlwind of packing and preparing, making it hard to enjoy the final moments in Bishkek. Friends called and came back until the last minute. Several shed tears. It was only thanks to the fact that I am quickly moving into new, exciting, and unknown realms that I was able to avoid great regret. And I held out the hope that I’d be back to see the new Bishkek.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Those who will be staying

Yesterday I went to my eastern dance class for the last time. I really like my teacher, Albina. She is 20 years old and full of confidence. In addition to her studies, she teaches eastern dance and cardio strip-tease at a fitness club. In the evenings, she dances at clubs and casinos.

She seemed sad at my going. “Just when you get used to someone, they take up and leave,” she said. “But I guess that’s the way things go.”

During a break in the lesson, she told me her doubts about Kyrgyzstan.

“During the revolution, we’d gone to visit a friend who lived in the center. I saw on TV how they were looting, and then went outside and saw them. I saw people carrying armchairs, right on their back. And afterwards, at the university, cell phones were being sold for 100 or 200 som ($2.50 to $5). I didn’t buy one. Maybe I was raised differently, but I couldn’t buy something just because it was cheap, knowing it had been taken from someone who made an investment in Kyrgyzstan and lost so much.”

She called the protestors on the square, during the November uncertainties. “I went to the square and I saw people sitting in tents and drinking. They were there just because they were being paid – 200, 500 or 1000 som per day, depending on how long they stayed – and they got some free food. I looked at them and I wondered what country I live in. So now we have a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidential. What does that mean?”

She said she likes President Bakiyev, that she has the sense that is trying to get something done. “And as for corruption, everyone steals,” she said. She mentioned how Akaev has $8 million in dollars in foreign bank accounts and that actions to retrieve that money have been stopped. “So what he stole from the country will stay with him, and will last for generations,” she said.

She said that Akaev was known to be a good scientist and a good profession, but she doesn’t know what happened when he got into office. And she said she didn’t know what happened to his son, Aidar. She told me that Aidar would come into nightclubs, drunk and breaking bottles. He’d point at the girls he wanted. If they didn’t stay to serve his wishes, he’d use his connections to kill them. She told me how she was dancing in the Cowboy Club one night and someone warned her that Aidar had come in.

“They told me to leave,” she said. “And the whole club cleared out. We hear that Bakiyev’s son Maxim is starting to go around with an attitude. And we hear that he recently bought a factory. They are probably starting to accumulate property, but our newspapers don’t talk about this openly, so no one knows. But at least we don’t see Maxim, at least we don’t hear about him going around drunk and causing problems.”

Then she started to think out loud about the alternatives. “There is always Almaty, where there is a higher standard of living. And a lot of people have left for there, but it’s expensive. The Russians are an evil people. Moscow is the most expensive city in the world and St. Petersburg isn’t far behind. And then beyond those cities, you have such a problem with drinking. They drink so much they are dying off. The demographic problem comes from that. As a result, Putin is inviting anybody to come be a citizen. But even if I’m Russian ethnicity, they will always look at me as a Kyrgyz because I come from Kyrgyzstan.”

And then her thoughts moved to outside the Soviet Union. “To go somewhere like Europe or America costs a lot,” she said. “I hear a U.S. visa costs $2500. And to go to those places, it’s hard if you don’t know anyone. You show up and say take me please.”

She stood upright, shoulders slumped forward, a sad look in her eyes, imagining herself as refuge without a home.

“And of course you have to be ready to leave everything and everyone.”

It didn’t seem like she’d be going anywhere anytime soon. She I reassured her that I thought Kyrgyzstan had a lot of potential and that in ten years it would probably be a completely different place, largely in part to the young people like her who would change things.

“In 10 years I’ll be 30,” she said, with a look that seemed to mean that was so old that nothing would matter any more. “I’ll probably be married by then.”

Albina is staying by choice. My friend Gulnara was tied down here by her mother and the force of tradition. When I first came to Kyrgyzstan and met her, she was young, intelligent, pursuing her MBA, and eager to pursue opportunities overseas. She’s now married, has been sitting at home for the past 1.5 years with a child, and is expecting a second, which will keep her at home for at least another year or two.

She seems to regret her lost opportunities. “I can’t wait to go back to work,” she told me last night. “I told Shakir, I’ll have this second baby, and then I won’t have any more for ten years. And then I’m going to go back and build myself a career.”

She hadn’t wanted a second baby now. She’d wanted to return to work when her 18-month leave period ended this month. But her husband, Shakir, insists that only a relative look after their son. And all their young relatives are studying. No one has time to watch a baby. Shakir won’t trust anyone recommended, even by a relative, for fear that they’d hit the child.

I asked how she’d find a childcare provider for two children when she can’t find one now for one.

“By then, Ravil, will be old enough for daycare and Shakir will take him to and from daycare. Maybe we’ll find a relative to help with the baby. But if not, Shakir will help watch him.” I kind of doubt it, but I hope for the best. Gulnara has an incredible mind – she can remember birthdays and phone numbers she heard once months or years ago – and I think she should be allowed to put it to use.

She told me how, as a student, she begged her mother for the opportunity to work as a nanny in France. “I would have lived with a family and done some childcare and housework. But I would have had the opportunity to see something, and compared to living with Russian speakers, I would have been immersed in the language.”

Her mother refused. “She said I’d be killed by someone,” Gulnara said. “Or that I’d get married to a Frenchman. I told her I wasn’t looking to get married, but she didn’t believe me. She said I needed to get married first, and then I could go wherever I wanted. I didn’t even mention anything like America. The ticket there is more expensive and it’s even further away.”

From that point on, Gulnara’s mother hurried to find her a spouse. And the decision to marry Shakir came very quickly, and without passion on Gulnara’s part.

Shakir seems to be a good person but recently he’s been showing more signs of the proud Kyrgyz man. When they go to visit relatives in Gulnara’s village, they sleep at his distant relatives house rather than at Gulnara’s parents. When I asked Gulnara why she said it was shameful for him to sleep at his wife’s parents house. He obviously hasn’t supported her in returning to work and he speaks disparagingly of her former work in a bank, saying that if she does work, she needs to be involved in private trade.

“I’m going to be different with my children,” Gulnara said. “I’m going to support them to travel and to acquire as many opportunities as they can.”

I believe she will.

Monday, February 19, 2007

preparations for departure

Friday was men’s day, a national holiday, giving us a three-day weekend. I knew I’d be busy packing, but hoped I would get out for one last excursion to the mountains today. It didn’t happen. I’m completely wrapped up in sorting, packing, organizing, tying up lose ends and saying goodbyes.

On Thursday I had my goodbye gathering with about 50 colleagues. I scheduled it for lunch to keep it short and sweet. It was nice and the several bouquets of flowers I received brighten up my apartment in the midst of the chaos caused by packing.

Last night Zhenya came by and asked me if I’d take $350 in ten dollar bills, given to her by her Chinese tenants in exchange for larger money. I didn’t know if I had enough larger money that the banks would accept (they are very picky – it must be 100s, clean, not old no marks on it). I also questioned the orange color of many of the ten dollars bills, not having seen that before. She suggested we go around to banks and have them checked and didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t have time.

A little while later Sveta stopped by. She came with her married lover, Vladimir, so I could only suppose they were back together. They brought a small cake for us to share as well as some traditional earrings. However, tension flitted between them like daggers piercing the air. They interrupted each other and constantly argued over little points like an old couple. I don’t know how long they will last. They insisted I put in the earrings, which, while pretty, were extremely heavy. So I walked around in pain as the metal pulled down my ears, trying to pretend I liked them while I served them tea and listened to them bicker.

Another friend wanted to meet up the previous night and others have called for a final talk. This is the hardest period, when it’s clear that the goodbyes are final this time and when I don’t even have time to enjoy the place and the people anymore, but am just focused on what is coming next and what I have to do to get there.

The State of Bishkek

This morning, on the way to work, my head was drawn to the sight of an entire pig’s head laid out on the hood of a car, on top of a cloth. It was there together with assorted other parts and organs, apparently for sale. This was right in the center of town and led to the thought – This is one of those things I’m not going to see again after next week.

A couple of days ago I saw the equally surreal sight of a giant, old Soviet piece of farm machinery driving through central Bishkek.

It snowed for the first time in probably about a month today. There was a bit of snow when I returned from my visit to the States. Actually a good amount one weekend. But by the time I got over my jetlag and was ready to hit the slopes, it disappeared and stayed away. I have only one weekend left in which to do any skiing. I’m crossing my fingers a little more snow will fall in the next few days.

Today our lawyer was reading out loud the new laws recently passed out. “The state is going to provide members of parliament with personal rifles that can be used in case of self-defense,” he said, almost laughing. The state doesn’t have money to provide decent educations, but it has money to buy guns for all of its wealthy members.

I haven’t written much about the political maneuverings, but three short months from when it looked like Bakiyev could be removed from power, he’s now firmly in place. He managed to get the Parliament back into his pocket and to completely replace the cabinet, including the Prime Minister, with his own people.

The photo above is from an internet café near my house and also near the mosque. It reads, regarding long-distance calls via internet lines:


Afghanistan 16 (som)

Iraq 14

(Bagdad) 7

Syria 16

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Valentine's Day and Goodbye

Unlike in the U.S., here there were no large reminders or ads hung conspicuously, reminding people to buy Valentine’s gifts for their loved ones. But despite this, everyone seemed to remember it and celebrate it with more vigor and enthusiasm that even in the States.

On the day before Valentine’s day, the receptionist at my health club was handing out red glitter Styrofoam hearts on plastic sticks. She seemed disappointed when I thanked her but didn’t take one, reluctant to add any more objects to the piles of stuff I have to prepare to move.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, a coworker left a miniature card on my desk. The woman who cleans my apartment brought me a card and a red carnation. Once I realized that people took this holiday seriously, I decided to join in and buy a heart-shaped cake and some chocolates for the office. The cake store was packed, as were the flower shops and the cafes in the evenings.

“It started to get popular three or four years ago,” Olga, my housecleaner told me. People told me that young people saw it in movies and on TV, and started to adopt it themselves.

My feeling here is that the holiday is a little less couple oriented. Those who are single didn’t seem to feel depressed about lacking a lover on this holiday. Instead, people shared their signs of love and affection to a larger group – to friends, coworkers and family, as well as lovers. Even my eastern dance teacher, who does have a boyfriend, didn’t go out to dinner with him alone. They were joined by her boyfriend’s brother and his wife.

Zhenya and Svetlana had asked me to go to the disco with them that evening. They were going to take advantage of the holiday to look for love. “We want to find husbands,” Zhenya told me.

Even though it was a Wednesday night, I was prepared to go. In all my time in Bishkek, I have never gone to a disco. I’m not too motivated to stay out late dancing with foreigners, nor with co-workers. But I thought it could be fun to join my local friends in a husband search. I even offered to help.

But at the last minute, Svetlana’s son got sick and they decided not to go. They didn’t even call to tell me they’d changed their plans. So, I ended up sitting home on Valentine’s Day evening after all.

Last night I had my going away party with my friends. We gathered at what is now my favorite café, U Bolshovo Mazaya. It’s located at the edge of town, where the city meets the view of the mountains.

On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, from 6 to 8, they offer half price cocktails. And with over 200 cocktails, they have one of the most extensive selections in town. They are especially proud of their layered cocktails – drinks in which the different layers of juice or alcohol don’t mind with each other, looking like a glass full of colorful striped sand.

As well, they have a very talented bartender, who told me he was trained in Moscow. He performed an entire show, during which the patrons stood up, watched, rapt, and clapped. He juggled, threw the bottle of open alcohol behind his back, threw the ice and caught it, and played up to the audience attention. At the end, they auctioned off the drink he made – a blue drink served in a martini glass and garnished with a banana.

Of course, they timed it well, after people had already drunk many half-priced cocktails. One man bid over $30 to give it to his date.

What I especially liked was the atmosphere. It was a wooden building, like a little cottage, with animal furs on the walls. It seemed warm and homey, like a cabin in the woods.

“This is done in the Russian style,” Gulnara’s husband Shakir said. “But the workers are Kyrgyz.”

The workers are very attentive, offering unusually good service for Bishkek. And the clientele was refreshingly varied – Kyrgyz and Russian, young and old, families and couples – they filled every table in the place and all seemed to be having fun.

I also had a very nice time. And seated with my friends, I felt grateful to be surrounded by such unique, smart, and good people. Each of them shaped my experience in Kyrgyzstan and I was very glad for that.

My local friends especially seem to be very sad that I’m leaving. I tell them I hope I’ll be back as a tourist at some point. And I really hope I will. But I know the chance of my spending an extended time here in the future is not very high.

It’s always hard to leave a place that has become like home. Especially knowing how hard it will be to maintain the ties formed here. But what makes leaving here quite a bit easier than leaving other places is knowing that there are exciting changes ahead. By focusing on the upcoming wedding and the job change, I can think a little less about what I’m leaving behind.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Traditional Osh Chaikhana

I’m in this difficult period, just over two weeks before leaving, when I still have a lot to do, but I’m realizing that each sight and each experience could be the last of its kind. Yesterday was probably the last time that I’ll see an airplane passenger with bottles of koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) under her seat, the brown globs of fat shaking in flight. This morning might be the last time I hear the call of fresh milk from a door-to-door vendor on a Saturday morning. It’s likely the last time I’ll see a well-dressed woman put two fingers to her nose, bend over the gutter, and let snot fly.

I just got back from what will likely be my last trip to Osh. There is this urge I feel upon moving from somewhere where I’ve spent a lot of time, and am unlikely to do so again, to try to see and do everything one last time, to pack in as many sights, smells, sounds, and memories as possible. But that pressure just adds to the stress.

During the evening in Osh, my colleagues and my family gathered at a traditional chaikhana or teahouse. I’d never been to one before because Shavkat told me only men were allowed there. He promised to get me permission some time to attend, but never did. It turns out he was wrong. That while the majority of clients were men, women were definitely there as well.

The building is an open square, built around a courtyard in the traditional Uzbek style. You have to call ahead to reserve a room and say how many kilograms of plov (fried red rice with lamb’s fat, lamb, carrots and spices) you want, and make a deposit. Each group eats in a private room, cut off from the others. And the chaikhana serves nothing but plov and tea. If you want anything else – juice, water, beer, salads, fruit – you have to bring it yourself.

Nevertheless, they do a very good business. This particular chaikhana had recently taken a $20,000 loan to expand their building. When I walked around and peeped into the windows of the other rooms, I saw groups of men, a group of soldiers, a group of several, middle-aged couples. Most of them sat on the floor, on cushions and pillows cupping round bowls of tea and eating the fatty plov from communal dishes. Our room, the largest, had a long table with chairs. I wandered into the preparation room, where an old man in an Uzbek cap chopped meat, heavyset men managed the plov in giant iron bowls, and red-cheeked women carried the plates of steaming plov to the customers.

“They say that only men are able to successfully make this plov,” Nigora said. “When a woman makes it, it just doesn’t turn out.”

I told her that I liked her plov better.

“My plov is a baby version,” she said. “Since most of our foreign guests don’t
like a lot of fat, we’ve adapted it. But this is the real thing.”

“I’ll be gathering my friends here soon,” Shavkat said. “I have to treat them because I’ve found a job.”

He was recently offered a job to run a tourist camp in the mountains. It’s the perfect job for him, given his love of the mountains, and it seems to have pulled him out of his depression and apathy he’d been in while unemployed. He has already recruited his sons to be his assistants during the summer.

“What about the market stall?” I asked. The two older boys mostly manage the stall, where they sell Chinese and Uzbek dishes.

“This work is much more important,” Nigora said. “The boys should help their father. And I will take care of the stall.”