Friday, April 9, 2010

The Land Where You Can’t Change Lanes

Written April 4th:

I’ve only been in Kyrgyzstan a little over a week, and it feels like longer not because life is interminable here, but because it’s all gone by so fast. We touched down in БИШКЕК around one or two AM local time, but Customs, a bus ride, checking in, unpacking, and exploring made it more like 5:30 before I got some sleep. We were up again at 10 for breakfast, the next couple of days a haze of language lessons, inoculations, soul-spilling sessions with new friends, and a slightly scary Russian man divesting himself of a rather long list of the forbidden. Our hotel, ЫСЫК-КѲЛ, shares a name with the large lake in the eastern part of the country, but volunteers who’ve been here longer than we call it the Overlook Hotel. Some criminally Soviet architecture went into building the place, but it does boast flush toilets and semi-functional showers, which seem like (almost) unnecessarily modern luxuries now. We were put into groups of about ten for language lessons – I got Kyrgyz, like most (I hear it’s very similar to Turkish, so I’m thinking of just working my way all the way back to Arabic). The eight or so groups (there are 70 of us Trainee Volunteers total) were divided among five-ish villages, at varying distances from the city of КАНТ, our so-called Hub Site. A few days ago (I have a hard time keeping track, now), we went into the capital to buy flowers for our new host families, then took buses to a small theater for a matching ceremony. I met my host АПА and her five-year-old granddaughter, АЯНА, who lives with them. My АТА works as a driver and security guard at a soccer stadium, and couldn’t be at the ceremony. Their son, АЗАМАТ (apparently a pretty common name here), is 25 and a policeman.
Now that I’ve had a few days to settle in, I think I can reasonably describe a typical day: I wake up about seven, get dressed, wash my hair in the kitchen sink and brush my teeth with water from the gravity filter each volunteer was assigned. I sit down to breakfast – a couple of fried eggs, some fried bread (НАН) with raspberry jam, and more tea (ЧАЙ) than I could ever drink – then walk down the street to where my friend Laetitia (Lola, for ease of pronunciation by Kyrgyz tongues) lives. We walk about 15 minutes to the house where our teacher, ИЗАТ, is staying. Class begins at 8, or whenever Mike (БАЙКЕ МАЙКЕ), Kevin (David, James, or Barack Obama), Hannah (Hoder), Lola, and I (АЙГЫР ЯН) all get there. We learn until 10:30, when we get a half-hour break to talk about how little we absorbed. We get back at it until 12:30, then quit for lunch. This honor rotates between the houses where each of us is staying, and seems to be something of a competition. My АПА makes very sure I’m aware our turn is coming up, and we’ve discussed what Americans eat ad nauseam. In the coming weeks we’ll have meetings on Culture and Security in the afternoons, but for now we’ve been free to wander around town as we please. Behind the village МЕКТЕП is a soccer field where we’ve been meeting up with a bunch of local kids and playing soccer, volleyball, and Red Rover (which we taught them). Whenever the kids run us ragged, the rest of the volunteers and I grab a drink from the store (everything here is ridiculously inexpensive – more on that at a later date), then disperse to our houses. I usually study, drink tea, watch Russian MTV, drink tea, talk, and drink tea at Lola’s house from about three to six, when I head home. Dinner is around seven, after which time I study, read, write, or watch more TV (it being on almost constantly in every home). I’ve yet to be able to stay awake past about 10.
Life here is not as different as I would have imagined. The big differences stand out: crapping in a hole is something I may never get totally used to, especially given that today, if all goes well, will be my first chance at a БАНЯ (although I surprise myself at how well my odor is holding up). The food can be very strange, especially in the meat department. The day I got here they slaughtered a sheep, and we’ve been eating it for days (though thankfully not the eyeballs, which were a one-time deal). It’s odd to live in a house in a country where cleanliness is taken so seriously that we have slippers for walking around inside, boots for going to the bathroom, and shoes for walking in the street, yet outdoors trash covers everything, and people litter freely. It’s an unfortunate contradiction, looking up at the pristine Tien Shan mountains to the south, and down at the affectionately-named “Trash River” I cross to get to school. My language group has decided to make it a personal project of ours to clean up the soccer field where we play, so that, for a while at least, the kids won’t have to roll around in candy wrappers and broken glass. A lot of the culture centers around food here, bread especially. If you ever travel to Kyrgyzstan, eat only a little bit anywhere you go, because anywhere you go it will be forced on you to no end – there’s no way I average fewer than 15 cups of tea a day, and five small meals. I’ll likely be called to one of them soon, so my post will end here. Stay tuned for news of my permanent assignment (I’m hoping for the warmer South, near ОШ or ДЖАЛАЛ-АБАД, and near my friends). I may have more regular internet access once I buy a cell phone, which apparently you can plug into your laptop and use as a modem.


  1. I am so pleased and relieved to hear from you and absolutely fascinated by what you write so well. Do get that cell phone and keep the blog coming.