Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pondering Purgatory and Leaving Bishkek

 The last few weeks Bishkek have been periodically transformed into a wonderland of snow.  The city grows agitated then retreats to calm, quieted under a muffling blanket of snow in the apartment complexes, away from busy streets.  The snowy intervals are followed by movements into warmer temperatures, dripping, slush everywhere.  The icicles that sometimes grow longer I am tall melt, break, fall off with a crash in the mid-morning sun.

Today the snow is fresh but city-trodden.  In places sparkling white, but lying on the sidewalks, khaki.  Pressed like butter and brown sugar, which, if it had not been trampled by a hundred booted feet, would be perfect for cookies. 

Last night, I decided I had been hit by a marshrutka, suffered a fatal head wound, died, and found myself stuck in a special purgatory they keep for study abroad students where they are forced to write papers indefinitely and they never get to see their families or boyfriends.  I don’t even believe in purgatory.  But that was really the best explanation I could come up with for my life as I shuffled home in the glittering confetti snow crying all the way from Bellagio café on Bokonbaeva to my apartment down on Toktogula.  Not because there were no buses but because I was mad and stubborn and didn’t want to play twister with twenty strangers for half an hour while I was having a meltdown.  Forty minutes later, frozen, I was greeted by my loving host mom who took me into her arms.  Of all my experiences studying abroad, having Mira Eje in my life has to rank in the top two at least.  Maybe top one, because I can’t even think of anything to match it.  It just goes to show that no matter where you travel or what you do in life, creating meaningful bonds with people is really the richest treasure anyone can have. 

The minor catastrophe I was experiencing seemed to subside after a few hours after necessary phone calls and emails.  I slept.  I woke.  Hours stretched on as I tapped away at my keyboard, stretched, tapped some more, started laundry, wrote, twirled my hair, wrote, had a thousandth cup of tea.  Oh God, let me out of this place.  I went to Vanilla Sky for probably the tenth time this week to work with internet.  Typed more.  Thought more.  Tried harder.  I always get to the point where I just think, “Ok now I’m just going to have to write a crap paper.”  The thing is, I’m not actually able to do it.  I’m plagued with thoroughness and have to reach some kind of completeness.  Well, about twenty minutes ago, I did it.  I plugged in the last footnote and reached 3,363 words.  And it’s not a crap paper.  It’s not the best or longest paper I’ve ever written, but given the circumstances, I feel that it is an accomplishment.  Now for starting on those little errands around Bishkek to wrap up my stay here.

Two days and I leave.  It’s a crazy thought.  I've been listening to Donald Miller's book "Through Painted Deserts" at night before I go to sleep, and a few nights ago as I was drifting off, I caught this apt little snippet:  "Everybody has to change or they expire. Everyone has to leave their home and come back so they can love it for all new reasons." I feel the exquisite gratitude of being in a place so far from home, and of going back to hearts I know and love. The miracle of airport meetings and cedar-scented reunions, noting with peculiar bitter sweetness how much higher your small brother’s head is off the ground than when you left.  Auld Lang Syne and all that jazz.   Merry early Christmas ya’ll.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My Son Wants to be a Refrigerator: A Small Mishap in Russian

Last week I passed the half-way mark of my time here in Kyrgyzstan.  Time is just tickin' away, and I really don't mind.  I love being here but I like things to move along too.  Fall is especially in the air today.  For a little while there I thought we might skip winter.  It snowed and rained and I made soup and wore multiple layers of socks to bed, praying that Bishkek would turn the heat on.  But today is warm and lovely and yellow. And it is Kurman Eid, a Muslim holiday.  We have off from classes and this morning I had the privilege of making manti with Mira Eje.  Just look at these little beauties:


 It is truly marvelous what a bit dough and blue floral cloth in a warm kitchen can do for your spirits.  We steamed the manti and got all ready and then friends from the dorm at London School came over.  When I went to meet them at the bus stop I couldn't help thinking that with the changing leaves, the hazy fall air, and the festive feeling at home, it was sort of a Thanksgiving in October.  We even put the extra leaf in the table like we do at the Walters house.   

In other news, Russian language progress is slow.  But it seems to have its mountains and valleys and this week we're just wandering through a valley. Possibly one with quicksand and Rodents of Unusual Size.  Probably I just need to study more. 

When I have mastered Russian verbs of motion I shall feel that I have gained a superpower.  I'm going to feel very superior around non-Russian speakers and still extremely humbled around everyone else.  Most of all I will have the simple power of the word "go" at my disposal.  Ah, I dream of this.

At least there are amusing moments.  For example, I have a chronic problem with confusing the words for "refrigerator" and the word for "artist," which in Russian are: "xoлодильник" (kholodilnik) and "художник" (khudozhnik).  My conversation instructor asked me to write in Russian about a book I like.  So I chose "My Name is Asher Lev" by Chaim Potok.  Well, that was just great, until I really got down to business relating the plot...

"Asher Lev is a Hebrew boy who wants to be a refrigerator.  His father is angry because he wants to be a refrigerator..."     

I should have had more understanding for Asher Lev's dad.  I would probably be a bit peeved if my son wanted to be a refrigerator, too.  Ah, life is never dull. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mumblings and Markets

Well.  Here we are with no raspberry incidents in 10 days.  That is good news.  I am still wrestling with Kyrgyzstan and sometimes it seems that Kyrgyzstan is wrestling with me.  I don't like to make a big deal of culture shock, because I don't see it as being necessarily shocked by things around me, but I do feel buffeted, frustrated, and tired pretty often these days.  It feels a little like an organ transplant that isn't hair is falling out, my skin is breaking brain is shutting down.  

Ok. Maybe I just need to eat some veggies.  I've been keeping away from the fresh produce more or less since the raspberries, but maybe those were extreme measures.  I love the food here but I'm not feeling too healthy in general and that is discouraging.  Although, my brain is much brighter now that my Russian lessons are straightened out and I'm doing the same grammar concept in all three lessons.  We're really getting somewhere and I am beginning to absorb the material, especially from my reading lesson, which I love because I get the context of the words and they stick.

Mostly I'm just learning to work with what I've got.  One thing at a time, one day at a time.  I may not like going to the bathroom on the side of a mountain or dealing with grumpy traffic, or having consistently slow and flaky internet, but there are worse things.  I have a comfortable home and good friends, and those are very important.

I have been in the process of "winter nesting" that sense of being in a new place and wanting to secure the environment.  So in that spirit, I've been searching shops for warm clothes since I brought very little warm clothing with me.  There are several classy malls in Bishkek but the clothes are really high.  In the markets they seem really cheap and likely to fall apart.  So I'm trying to find a happy medium.  I haven't yet been to Dordoi market, which everyone says to go to.  It is one of the biggest markets in Central Asia, and sells literally tons of goods imported from China, as well as Turkey.  According to this article, around 100,000 people work there.  It's a massive place stacked with box cars in all different colors.  I've only seen it empty because it was closing up when we tried to visit, but it has the signs of being quite and impressive place.

We did go to Orto-Sai market this week.  It is full of beautifully laid out foods.  

I have a great appreciation for rice in large quantities.  And I appreciate the artistic flair involved in the practical act of arranging goods for sale.  Neat bags with their tags, all in a row.  Fruits in pyramids, brilliant spices brimming over cups, ready to be taken home and made into tasty plov and laghman

It is really lovely.  There was even a man squeezing pomegranate juice with a huge silver pomegranate juicer and storing it glass bottles, crimson and rich.  There is so much to absorb and enjoy.   

Monday, September 17, 2012

Don't Eat the Raspberries

I suppose there comes a time in every travel blog where you post that wretched “I was in stranded in the wilds and I thought I was going to puke up my vital organs and die” post.  Although in my case, Bishkek is not the wilds at all but a quite developed city, and I may not die after all.  It all started with the raspberries.  I swear, if you see that sweet little babushka there on the street with her jar full of luscious red raspberries, don’t buy them and don’t eat them.  If you want to live. 

Last week we mostly all came back from Issyk-Kul with one digestive problem or another, but after a day or two we were back on track.  Mine wasn’t that bad after a bit of sleep.  I felt ready for our second weekend in Issyk-Kul, this time including a picnic at Barskoon waterfall and the touristy horse ride that everyone has to do when they come to Kyrgyzstan.  And more swimming in that gorgeous lake.  Sunday on the way home we stopped at a village where most people in the village make yurts for a living.  One family there showed us through the yurt-making process, which they do in their back yard.  That was fantastic and I will do a special post about that later when I have the pictures. We ate a huge meal with the family there and left satisfied. 

By the time we got back I was congratulating my intestines on a game well played.  I was tired and a little dehydrated but so far at peace on the inside, if you know what I mean.  Then there was that babushka with the raspberries.  Where I get off the bus there is that Narodny store I’ve mentioned before, and outside there are always people selling fresh produce.  I’ve bought plums and pears before, washed them up, and been totally fine.  But raspberries are a different story, and I knew it.  It’s just that I get so excited about new foods and I do love raspberries and I sometimes still entertain this adolescent idea that I am invincible and impervious to all illness.  So I bought the raspberries.

They were good, too.  I took them home and washed them in the little orange colander, mashed them up with some kefir and sugar, and ate them.  Along with the stuffed peppers Mira Eje had prepared.  I was starting to feel pretty great and I started actually getting my homework done, which was also an improvement over last week.  Eventually my stomach started hurting pretty bad, but I figured it was just my ulcer aggravated.  I don’t eat raspberries very often and I didn’t realize how acidic they are. 

So I went to sleep, only to wake up at 3:00am with the inevitable prophetic knowledge of who would be kneeling next at the porcelain throne.  I will spare you the details of my five successive pilgrimages and my abundant offerings there.  I had no medicine because once again there was the invincibility fallacy that I had bought into that well, I never had problems in Ukraine, so why should I here?  There are some things you have to learn the hard way.  And oh, I am.  I never woke Mira Eje, and in the morning she came to see why I hadn’t gone to school.  I was mildly pleased that we could communicate about my condition in Russian even in my nauseated fog.  She checked on everything she could do for me, and then said she was going to the pharmacy to get something.  I didn’t recognize the name of it but at that point I didn’t care. 

Sometime later, in the interval between my fourth and fifth pilgrimages, this angel from God returned from the pharmacy with activated charcoal tablets.  I felt like someone had cloned my mother and brought her to Kyrgyzstan.  God bless her soul.  *Another plug for home stays.* I ate the charcoal tablets and threw them up a little while later, but everything started looking up after that.  Since then I have had diluted juice and three quarters of a large cracker.  Progress. 

It has been a horrendous twelve hours but I can’t help marveling at this amazing body that has been created to deal with its own breaches of security in such an efficient fashion.  Those bacteria don’t stand a chance.  I was a little resistant to the process, but I realize that it’s actually a sign that I have a healthy immune system that will tolerate no compromise and take no quarter.  So now this body will also go rest itself again and maybe even finish that cracker.  If I dare.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

To Issyk-Kul We Go

So far I have spent two weeks in Kyrgyzstan and nearly all of that time I’ve been in Bishkek.  I’ve been itching to get the heck out of dodge and see something, and this weekend we did.  About ten of us from the London School in Bishkek went to Issyk-Kul on the excursion organized by the school.    
We went to see more of Kyrgyzstan and learn about the culture here, but for me what stood out was the natural rugged beauty of the place.

We did the most strenuous hike I’ve ever done in my life.  Our Kyrgyz guide said he thought we hiked up about 2000 m/6200ft elevation, but he said he isn’t sure of the distance…he doesn’t need to be.  He lives here.  It’s everyday business to him.  To me, however, coming from my East Texas home at 300ft. above sea level, it’s a different story.  We started at the flat-ish part of the picture below and reached some point a little farther up than what this shows.  See that little white speck to the middle-right of the picture?  That’s only part way up.  We started at nine and had lunch a little after that white speck (which is someone’s house by the way).  They weren’t home.  But their dog and their goats were.  

We hiked further and further and the slope grew steeper and steeper.  There was no trail after a while, just prickly grass, lichen speckled rocks, and thin, ever colder air.  Every step was a more or less a chore after a while.  Breathing was the main task.  You’d think you were about to keel over, you’d stop, sit and breath, then get up and start moving again…only to find that after ten or fifteen feet you thought you were going to die again.  It was a fight with the wind.  It was glorious.  Our patient guide must have thought we were a bunch of babies because he looked like he was on a stroll in the park, serene, well-paced, hands balanced as he clasped them behind his back.  
We never did make it to our destination—a lake far, far up in the mountains.  We were straggled out on the mountainside like a herd of lost sheep.  Finally, as I was trying to catch up with a small group ahead of me and figuring that it wasn’t long until I absolutely had to turn around, we reached the end of it. Peak folded on peak above us.  The icy rain drops that had been coming in random showers turned to freezing rain.  I saw the group ahead  turn and knew that we weren’t going to see the lake after all. It was really like that moment in the Lord of the Rings movie where the fellowship is trying to go around the mountain instead of going into Moria and they are defeated by the snow storm.  Except that as you can see, there was much less snow.  I joined them under a rock for shelter for a few minutes and we huddled there, not with a sense of defeat, but of exhilaration.  I was thrilled with the whole thing. 
I was even more thrilled when began our descent and I discovered within twenty feet that my body had lightened drastically.  Suddenly there were no bricks on my chest and my lungs were no longer straining like a sailboat in a gale.  Oxygen really is a wonderful thing.
We practically galloped down the mountain, somewhat out of sheer energy and somewhat out of necessity due to the precipitousness of situation…you couldn’t help it really.  That whole mountain whipped my butt.  But it was really the best experience.  And as we hiked back down in the rich afternoon light, the mountain seemed to light up in colors I had never noticed before.  Scarlet and rose and wintergreen, ochre and coal and yellow all came clear out of the drab brown and gray.
It was 6pm when we went back in the van over another ridge of mountains to the lake, where were were staying in a private lake house.  It was a really simple, spacious brick house with two stories and lots of little rooms with beds.   This picture is not where we stayed; it’s the neighbors.  But I have to admit that I came to Kyrgyzstan partially out of curiosity about yurts, so here they are.  Beach yurts.
  Lake Issyk-Kul is a national tourist destination because it is beautiful, huge, and clean.  There are hot springs around it and it doesn’t freeze in the winter because it is a salt lake.  They say it’s a “warm” lake but that is not the adjective I would use to describe it.  I would say, however, that in the same day I had the best hike of my life I also had the best (and maybe shortest!) swim of my life.  It was at sunset, and the clear aqua water was splashed with vibrant rose from the sun slipping down.  The gentle waves brought silt up on the shore, carrying pebbles in hundreds of tiny varieties.  The water was a sweet and perfect relief to our aching muscles.   

I don’t have a picture as the sun was going down but I can tell you it was lovely.  I was convinced that those high heaps far across the water were clouds, but I was proven wrong.  They were mountains.  Mountains shrouded in haze and capped in cloud.  I looked out the window this morning and realized that there are and plenty of mountains and plenty of lakes in the world but this one at this moment appears the most magical to me.  I’m not sure how I ever got here but my eyes are wide open and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
 Post Script:  I wrote this Sunday night and then crashed.  Now most of us are recovering more or less from some kind of attack on our intestines.  I agree with Issyk-Kul but I'm not convinced that Issyk-Kul agrees with me.  But until next time...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

My Kyrgyz Mom

Last weekend was hang-out-with-your-host family weekend, which is not really new for me because I’m a homebody at heart and I was already hanging out with my host family (that is, my host mom, because right now it’s only the two of us).  I’ve heard misgivings about home stays: that you have to sacrifice your autonomy as a student, that some host families can be too controlling or overly protective.  But I decided to risk it for two reasons:  

 1) I like structure and a family environment and I felt it would be a good fit for me.  I don’t mind conforming to household rules, within reason. 
2) I thought it would be the best option for gaining fluency in Russian.  Now I’m convinced it is my only chance, partially because of reason 1.  I’m tired when I get done a lot of days and I want to go home.  At home, guess what…if I want to talk to anybody, it has to be in Russian.  

 It’s pretty phenomenal that even though I’m a beginner when it comes to Russian, I have not spoken more than a few sentences of English at home in the past nearly-two weeks I’ve been at Mira Eje’s house.  That’s a pretty big deal because that is my primary comfort zone for the next three months.  So  Russian must inevitably become my relaxing language.  At least that’s my theory.  I do speak English with my classmates all afternoon at school but hey…I have to preserve my sanity, right?  I think it’s a good balance. 

But on to my host mom, Mira Eje.  So far I have been very impressed by her abilities as a host mom.  She is very caring without being overbearing.  She’s a great cook and she has a fun sense of humor.  I think you can get that idea from the picture below...

Mira Eje made lunch after the Independence Day Parade on Friday...macaroni and beef, with fresh veggies.

We joke about her water dispenser sounding like a cappuccino machine and about my tendency to ask for an autobus instead of watermelon. What a difference a couple of letters make.   

Mira Eje is also proactive about helping me learn Russian.  On Saturday we went to a market and she bought a little collection of kids books for me –old school Russian books with abridged stories from Pushkin!  For real!  I’m reading Pushkin in Russian!  Bucket list alert… 

Ok, "reading Pushkin" is stretching it.  I translated two pages of abridged Pushkin with the help of Mira Eje’s charades, to be truthful.  But I was impressed with myself anyway.  

We went to Bishkek's botanical garden on Sunday and walked around, breathing in the fresh air and getting glimpses of the mountains in the distance.  I'm really excited about getting out of the city smog and breathing again.  But the garden was a nice reprieve.  There were families there, young couples arm in arm, runners and dog walkers.  Mira Eje made sure I took pictures (and posed like a Russian diva!)  And she did too.  This woman is young at heart...

And here's my diva debut...

We are getting along splendidly.  We might have a langauge barrier but at heart, a mom is a mom, no matter where she is, no matter where she's from. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Narodny Principle: A Case Study

We’re coming to the end of the first week in Kyrgyzstan, and I’d say a major part of this week has consisted of getting to know public transport in this neck of Bishkek.  So right here and now, I’m going to lay down an idea that has been forming in my mind about navigating new cities.  It might have a name already, but for my purposes I’m calling it the Narodny Principle.  I have a good reason for that, which I’ll explain shortly.  

When you begin the process of familiarizing yourself with a new place, you naturally want to find landmarks that you will remember.  The trouble comes when you pick a landmark that is familiar without realizing that it is simply familiar because there are multiples of the same thing and you see it all the time.  This is the essence of the Narodny Principle. Your brain, which is starving for something recognizable, latches onto that thing (a stop sign would be a little too obvious, but that’s sort of what I’m getting at) and feasts on it.  And then you take the wrong bus and stop at the wrong version of that thing and have to take a taxi home after dark in a strange city in the first three days you are there.  At least, that’s what happened to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.  

I’m sure that the Narodny Principle does not apply to all of you because different people have different ways of memorizing directions. Ahem.  But I’m sure that some of you would own up to it if pressed for the truth.  It’s tricky.  I was thrilled when Mira Eje took me to this nice grocery store a street over from our flat, adorned with a big, clean red sign that said “Народны” on the front.  There were big posters outside with grocery sales, it was well lit, it was noticeable.  After she accompanied me to school and back once and I had made a solo run in the morning, I was feeling pretty good about the whole deal.  Hop on the marshrutka, grab the rail before it starts moving, pay, peek out the window, note your stop, ask to stop, get off, cross the street, etc. etc.  Not too bad.  

So I figured I could ride down to the mall on Tuesday evening, since that was the most familiar place besides the school, and camp out at a nice coffee shop there to use internet and stuff.  I did that.  It was great.  Mira Eje said the buses would go till 10:00pm.  So to make sure I got the bus, I packed up my stuff a little before 9:00 and crossed the street to where the buses usually come.  The two buses she told me were good to take were 110 and 210.  In the morning, they seemed to come at random every few minutes, lots of them.  So I waited, but nothing showed.  Waited some more.  Lots of buses were coming and I was craning my neck to see the numbers in the glare of lights, because by this time it was after dark.  It is a busy, well lit area with lots of people.  Night life, but of a wholesome kind.  But no 110 or 210 marshrutkas in sight.  Well.  I scanned my brain for the other numbers I had seen on that info sheet because I knew that there were more buses that went by my house.  And I was almost certain that 100 was one of them.  Almost.  

It had been fifteen or twenty mintues and I thought maybe the 110 and 210 were done for the night.  But there were so many 100s.  Yes, that was it.  There was a moment of decision and I got on the bus, handing the driver my 10 som and clinging for dear life as the bus lurched on down Sovietskaya street.  The trouble at this point was that I couldn’t remember which way we needed to turn onto my street.  And I couldn’t remember the name of the street either.   Which now that I think back on it, is the kind of information traveling students should tattoo on their palms before leaving the flat.  I’m not going to make excuses for myself.  

Well, we turned alright.  And we went down down down another street.  And after we had gone down just a little too far, I felt, and things were not looking as familiar as I would have liked them too, I saw a sight that made my heart leap for joy.  Hapодны!  The Narodny store, in all its respectable red grocery store glory, shining like a beacon in the night.  I asked the driver to stop, please, and got off.  But then.  Then I had a small knowing feeling inside.  Because as comforting as the sight of the Hapодны store was to me at that moment, I knew it was a false familiarity.  Where was the kolbasa store?  Where was the cross street?  I suddenly had my first very real application of the Narodny Principle in which I saw the flaw of my choice in landmarks.  The whole city of Bishkek is crawling with Narodny stores.  It’s the Walgreens of Kyrgyzstan, more or less.  More, probably. 

At this moment, for the record, I made some good decisions.  I checked for the street name on the side of the building.  Unfortunately, that didn’t help because I didn’t recognized the name.  Which wasn’t a good sign.  However, I also chose not to panic.  Because that doesn’t help and people can smell fear on you, making you an easy target if there do happen to be any sleazy characters around.  I’m learning a lot about projecting positive energy.  At that point I decided to take advantage of the light and safety offered by Narodny.  I called Mira Eje and we covered the basic facts in Russian.  I was lost.  I was on such and such street.  She covered that basic fact that I needed to get a taxi.  But there my Russian petered out.  

I looked around and engaged my intuition to find a good person to ask for help.  Behind me was this couple who looked friendly and in love in a fun way, the kind of way that makes you happy to help people so long as you get to do it together.  The girl had straight, short black hair in this cute flapper-like haircut.  So I asked her for help, and since it was a little difficult to explain, I ended up just handing her the phone and letting her and Mira Eje sort it out.  The girl got off the phone just laughing and laughing.  The guy was just smiling.  They called the taxi and then stood outside and waited with me.  They stood arm in arm just laughing and laughing.  I laughed too.  The taxi came and they made sure I was all settled before it drove away. It was about a 7-10 minute drive home and cost 110 som, which is about $2.50.  Worth the learning experience I think, and the entertainment provided to the couple at the store.  The taxi driver was a little, well, disdainful.  I don’t blame him really.  All I know is I learned a lot.  Since then I have walked up and down both streets and taken several more buses by day, arrived securely at both the post office and the central square on my own, and even braved the Vefa Center trip again at night, sticking with the appropriate bus this time and keeping my eyes peeled for the appropriate Hapoдны store, of which I will always have fond memories.