Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

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Eating Like it is Either Halloween or Thanksgiving

Last week Muslims celebrated the holiday Orozo Ait, which follows Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. I remembered how a few years ago our friends invited us to celebrate with their family. We arrived in their village the eve of Ait and the family was busy getting things prepared: chopping vegetables and meat, cooking, preparing for guests.  We didn’t know what to expect. We only knew that this was the holiday that breaks the fast so people will visit and eat together.

The next morning we started off the holiday by eating breakfast with our hosts and other guests. The spread included plov, candy, fruit, tea, sugar, jam, and boor sok (little fried pieces of bread, very similar to Navajo fry bread). After prayers were made we tried to engage in conversation with our broken Russian.

During the meal they told us that it is traditional to visit at least 7 houses. We could do that. “Why not add a couple more and do 9?” we confidently thought. Good thing we packed our buffet pants (no, not really). We visited the second house and greeted our hosts with the traditional greeting. They led us into a room and there before us was plov, candy, fruit, tea, sugar, jam, and boor sok. We love plov and boor sok so we were in heaven. We knew that to visit 9 houses we would need to pace ourselves. What we didn’t know was that after a plate is completely finished the hosts will fill the plate again.

The bread of the spread

The bread of the spread

As Americans we like to think that by eating all our food we show that we appreciate the food and are done. In Kyrgyzstan, leaving a plate empty means that a person is not done and can eat more. We’d finish a plate to show that we liked and enjoyed the food, but then they’d fill it again. You’re seeing a trend here.Close to full we left that house and moved on to another. We entered the third house, greeted our hosts, sat down, prayed, and ate. By the fifth house we were stuffed and could not eat anymore, but we would not stop short of our goal of 9. We felt like the easiest way to get from one house to the next would be to roll each other. By the end of the day we were full of plov and tea and decided that the holiday was a little like Halloween, because we went from house to house for food and candy, and a little like Thanksgiving because all we did was eat all day.

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Glacier Water

One of the many differences in life in Kyrgyzstan, compared to life in the US, is the water system. In the US, you have one water main to your home and then it splits into a hot line and a cold line, with heat provided by your own water heater. In Kyrgyzstan however, you have three water lines into your home. One is a hot water line to provide heat, via radiators, the second is your normal cold water line for your faucets and toilet, and the third is your hot water line for your faucets. A great thing about this system is that you have unlimited hot water for showers, dishes, etc. (This is true in Bishkek, but unfortunately there is no third line with hot water in Karakol.)

There is a downside to this system. For one month each year, the hot water pipes are turned off for system maintenance. In Bishkek, this occurs in May. That means you have no heat or hot water for bathing, washing, or any other purpose unless you have your own water heater, which we did. I know heat may seem unnecessary, but in May in Kyrgyzstan, sometimes you still want a little heat. For our month of May this year, we experienced cold water like never before. Our water heater was less than ideal in its ability to heat water. This, we think, was more about water pressure than about heating ability, but the result was the same. We used glacier melt water for showering for the month of May.

When the hot water was turned back on, I attempted to turn off the water to the heater and return to city water, only to have the valve disintegrate in my hand. Thankfully, no leak occurred. We went for two weeks trying to get it fixed to no avail. I tried every combination of the many valves in the bathroom to switch it to normal, or so I thought. Derrick came by and offered me a hand. Our first try, we found the magic combination to fix it without being able to turn the correct valve! Lesson learned. Next time, keep track of what you try so you don’t repeat the same steps.

Thanks Derrick.

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Do You Need a Hug?

It was a hot summer day and I was with three American guys in a packed, hot, minibus. Now, my three friends were very new to the city of Bishkek and public city transportation. We had to get from the south side of the city to the center on a “marshrutka,” one of the city’s minibuses. We stood at the bus stop and chatted about daily life in the city. I gave them a short description of what to expect on the minibus and explained to my friends that it would be crowded, hot, sweaty and stinky from all the people, you get stared at, and you get shoved a little bit. The bus arrived, and it went something like this:

We paid our bus fare and cautiously found a spot to stand. It was fine for a couple of minutes until reality hit us hard. At the next stop, in flowed a swarm of people stuffing the minibus to an uncomfortable capacity. The guys looked at me with worry. We got separated a bit and I got pushed to the back of the bus. They looked more worried. From the back of the bus I saw a local man talking to one of the guys in English. The other two were crammed against the wall. One of the guys was trying to avoid having his face in a stranger’s armpit. As the bus weaved in and out of traffic, the passengers swayed side to side bumping against each other. The guys were being thrashed about. Toward the end of our trip, a family of three had to get out from the back of the bus. They were not gentle about it. They shoved one of my friends into the seat because the local family was in a rush. Even I knew that was a bit harsh.

So after a few more moments of being glared at, we finally reached our destination and got off the bus. I glanced at the 3 guys and they looked wrecked.

“Well, that’s our public transportation. Do you need a hug?” I asked.

“Yes, I do Derrick,” one of them replied, “Yes, I do.”

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Getting the Canning Know-How

canning lid closer

canning lid closer

Sometimes the process of trying to do something totally new and out of the box (like canning for this city girl), is the fun part of the adventure.  When I am invested in something, I enjoy the process, even if there are some mis-steps along the way, possibly especially if the process isn’t perfect, I enjoy knowing that we will figure it out.

When mom or grandma isn’t there to show you how, the next place to turn is others who are around and might teach us the process.  Unfortunately, the expert American caners we know in Kyrgyzstan, don’t actually can veggies, so their guesses were as good as ours and they weren’t available to come and coach us through the process anyway.  No matter, these babes-in-the-woods are going to forge ahead.

Second step: learn from youtube and wikihow. It is amazing how much information is on the web, and how much variation there is, as well, to deal with the “but, what if…..” or “how do I do that….”.  Armed with this information, Magevney got a canning kit ordered online that came with the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving”.  That book was a gold mine of information, explaining the physics of canning so that as we could tackle the intricacies of Russian canning and American canning and try to create a hybrid.

So, why the need to create a hybrid?  American canning methods provide for the unique ability to submerge your canned goods in a water bath for the safest end product.  The secret is in the lids, that you can tighten down enough to be water tight, but not so tight to allow the air to escape and to pressurize the inside for a bacteria free environment. The Russian type lids, on the other hand, do not allow for this extra step.

We struggled with this for quite a while.  Do we try to “steam” seal the cans?  Do we use the oven to heat our canning jars? The decision seemed significant, because if we did it wrong, we may at best have lost all of the precious work we had done and the worst would be making our families sick.

Well, we went ahead and bought the huge pots, gathered all of our canning jars – almost 60 jars that hold a Liter each, bought the lids, the lid-tightener and in the last minute we had a new friend come through and say, ‘come on over and watch me can my jam, and I will show you the ropes.’ That clinched all the information we had so far and we were confident enough to breach out on our own.

We are ready to go!

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Two Dinners? Okay!

Our second lunch of the day

Our second lunch of the day

One unexpected aspect of life in Kyrgyzstan is how much food is consumed.  Obviously in the U.S. we’re good at eating, but despite our healthy appetites, I’m sometimes caught off guard at how much food is placed before me as a guest in someone’s home. This culture of hospitality can lead to some interesting situations (particularly when we keep in mind the expectation that the guest eats).

We were being given a tour of a small town in southern Kyrgyzstan (known around here as “the south”) by a good friend when a family from the village called to invite us to their son’s birthday party.

“We need to hurry home because my wife is making lunch,” my friend said, “And then we can head over to the party.”
It was late already (nearly 2pm), so we headed home, hurried through a Korean soup for lunch, and then immediately walked the couple blocks over to the birthday party.  Of course, this is Kyrgyzstan, so at the party the adults were all sitting around a low table, which was piled high with bread, salads, candies, and steaming mounds of plov.


“Have some salad!”

“Here, I will put more on your plate.”

“Eat! Eat!””

These are the typical things you hear as a guest at someone’s home. It is wonderful, but … right after lunch? Seriously? As one friend observed: “Why am I fed a normal lunch just moments before going to a party where there will be lots of amazing food?”

The same type of thing happened again just the other day: we had to go drop off rent at our landlord’s house at 7pm, so, thinking as typical Westerners, we ate dinner around 5:30 and headed to her home. She warmly welcomed us and sat us down behind her desk, making small talk along the way. Then she got down to business.

“For me, relationships are always primary,” she said, “So it is always important to spend time talking before dealing with business.”

I’m beginning to wonder if “spend time talking” is code in Kyrgyzstan for “eating together” (much like “Do you want to drink some tea?” <insert link for previous blog about tea>). Her daughter prepared a hearty noodle soup and a side of pot roast for us. It was wonderful, but it was also my second dinner of the night. Two hours later, we did get to pay the rent, but not before spending ample time just being hosted as guests by a wonderfully hospitable Kyrgyz woman, and not before eating more than enough bread covered in fantastic, homemade strawberry preserves. As we left, she invited us back with the words, “Any time you’re bored, just come see me. But please give me three hours of warning.”

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Look, Tourists!

As foreigners in Karakol, we are easy to spot. We know this. But as easy as we are to pick out, we are nothing compared to the tourists who come through to backpack across the wilderness. I’m told that many of these backpacking tourists come from Europe. Karakol is a popular landing spot for these backpackers so during the summer especially, locals are used to seeing these tourists around. As much fun as it has become for us to point out these backpackers, I can’t imagine what the locals think. Maybe it is just a normal part of their summer lives. During our beach day that I blogged about last week, we spotted two of these tourists walking through. It was so funny to see them in their backpacking gear while everyone else was in their swimsuits, lying on the sand or playing in the water. Imagine them walking across the beaches of Florida or California while you and your family are hanging out by the water. So much easier and more fun than Where’s Waldo!Tourists on the beach

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Eat Slooooowly

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of traveling into southern Kyrgyzstan with some friends. We left Bishkek early in the morning for the long drive south through low valleys and over ten thousand foot passes. Every night of the trip we stayed in a different home and every night we experienced Kyrgyz hospitality at its finest.

Home after home, we were welcomed in and given great, homemade food, fresh baked bread, and enough hot tea to fill the pools for the London games. We learned that plov differs region to region, and we had it almost every day of the trip. We also instituted a most important rule for meals: the youngest must finish the meal. It is only polite to eat what is set before you, but often that is enough food to feed a small army. Luckily for me, Derrick was there to be the youngest. Towards the end of the trip, I’ll never forget him saying during a meal, “eat sloooowly, eat slooooowly.”

Age has its benefits.