Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road


The Confession

“What do you think, are we sinners?” the teacher asked the class after describing what a confession is (mainly to me since I’d never seen the word in Russian before. The title of the day’s story was confession. “Yes, of course. All people are sinners,” the class answered with one voice. “Why?” The response was silence. “Well, what is sin? So we know murder and stealing are sins. What else? LaVena, what do you think?” I answered “envy”.

Gasp! “What? Envy is a sin?” the students asked surprised. “Yes, of course it’s a sin. Do you envy?” “Yeah, sometimes,” answered the students bashfully. After more discussion about what we thought sin was, our teacher continued by reading a story about two sisters who had grown old together, both never having married. The younger of the two was on her death bed even though she was only 56 years old. Her older sister, by 6 years, sat at her bedside and wept. They had only each other their whole lives because, while even though they were both very pretty, the older of the two swore never to marry after her fiancé unexpectedly died just before the wedding. She was only 18 at the time. Her younger sister, seeing how grief-ridden her sister was, swore to her that she, too, would never marry and would be by her side so that she would never be alone. As time went on the younger sister aged more quickly than her older sister. Her hair turned gray much faster and her body was ridden with aches and pains.

On her death bed after the priest had come in to forgive her of her sins, she needed to tell her older sister why she had aged so much faster. She carried with her a dark secret. The younger sister had been in love with her sister’s fiancé and could not bear the thought of him loving and marrying the older sister instead of her. She saw them kiss once and the bliss both had was too much for the little sister. She broke a glass, crushed the shards into powder, and placed the powder in some cream her sister used to make
a pie. The man ate 3 slices and the younger sister 1. He died, she lived. He died because of her childish jealousy.  All her life she carried that secret with her and now, on her death bed, she was asking forgiveness from her sister.

The teacher asked, “What do you think? Did theolder sister forgive her younger sister?” All answered, “Yes, of course she
forgave her.” The teacher responded, “Why do you think she forgave her?” The answer from all was that she was family, it was her only sister. She asked me, “Do you think the older forgave her sister? Why do you think she forgave her?” I responded, “Yes because it’s a love between two sisters. It’s a strong love that overcomes all things.”

The teacher finished the story: The older sister leaned over, kissed her sister on the forehead and forgave her.

This story made sense. This story had what all the students knew: Family is there for each other even when things are ugly.

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My first winter in Kyrgyzstan was the coldest winter I have ever experienced. There was ice everywhere and you could never stay warm no matter where you went. That winter my friend asked me if I liked to snowboard. I had never tried. He told me that it was easy and that he could teach me. I didn’t want to go so I refused his offer. But he asked me again and again all week from that point. Each time I refused. I talked to my wife about trying it out every day. I eventually caved in and told my friend that I would go with him and his friends.

The day before we went snowboarding we rented snowboarding gear. I kept thinking to myself that I was crazy for going. After we got our gear ready we made plans to leave the city the next day. I fell asleep nervous. The next day we left early. It was me and 5 other guys. The ski lift is not far from the city so we arrived less than 30 minutes from departure. We strapped on our gear and set off toward the ski lift.

Near the lift was a small hill to do warm-ups. I looked at my friend and told him to instruct me. “Snowboarding is something that can’t really be taught, you just have to do it and figure it out”, he told me. I looked at him with the deepest confusion. Great, now I have to teach myself! I had never attempted snowboarding so I was utterly helpless. The other guys helped me on my feet once I had the board strapped on. I fell immediately after standing and sliding 3 feet. I was able to get myself up the second time and I pulled myself forward. It was going. I was amazed at my attempt to stay on my feet and I felt a small amount of satisfaction. I slid down about 25 feet and I fell again. But this time I could not stop. My body rotated the opposite direction my feet were going. I twisted my body horrendously and then I heard a pop in my knee and I had a searing pain in my right ankle.

I stopped. I cried out in tremendous pain as I unstrapped my board. Two of the five guys roused me. I realized that my knee had no pain but my ankle was in the worst pain possible. I could not stand for more than a second on my own. The guys helped me to the cabin café up a long trail of stairs. Every step felt like my ankle was being stabbed with needles. They sat me in the cabin and left. I felt so much pain I could barely move an inch. I helplessly sat in the café the rest of the day in pain. My, what a great experience.

So do I ski or snowboard? No. Have I tried since then? No.

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Love for Lenin

dec 18 (2)For the astute lover of history it would not be such a surprise to see so many statues of Lenin around. I on the other hand, have been really surprised by the outright pride and acceptance that many people have of their soviet past. The memories, I should say, of the average person are bitter sweet. There were so many things that were built and established during the soviet times that there can be no denial that it was a time of overall development. It seems the infrastructure for schools, hospitals, military and government were laid during that time. For the Kyrgyz people this was a time of upward mobility over other people groups in this region, who did not get a land named for them. They still exist in little hamlets, staunchly defending their own traditions and culture. The Kyrgyz got their place on the map. So, it is no wonder that there are still remnants of Lenin’s teaching, and signs and busts all over the place, since people have chosen to remember the good, not the bad. Now that the people are moving towards even more nationalistic tendencies it will be interesting to see how long the remnants of the years past will continue to linger. But for now, it is still surreal to walk past the huge statues and other memorabilia.

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Acquired Tastes, Part 3

Несколько лет тому назад у другого   моего соседа в деревне мужик в овине обгорел. (Он так бы и остался в овине,   да заезжий мещанин его полуживого вытащил: окунулся в кадку с водой, да с   разбега и вышиб дверь под пылавшим навесом.) Я зашел к нему в избу. Темно в   избе, душно, дымно. Спрашиваю: где больной? «А вон, батюшка, на лежанке», —   отвечает мне нараспев подгорюнившаяся баба. Подхожу — лежит мужик, тулупом   покрылся, дышит тяжко. «Что, как ты себя чувствуешь?» Завозился больной на   печи, подняться хочет, а весь в ранах, при смерти. «Лежи, лежи, лежи… Ну,   что? как?» — «Вестимо, плохо», — говорит. «Больно тебе?» Молчит. «Не нужно ли   чего?» Молчит. «Не прислать ли тебе чаю, что ли?» — «Не надо». Я отошел от   него, присел на лавку. Сижу четверть часа, сижу полчаса — гробовое молчание в   избе. В углу, за столом под образами, прячется девочка лет пяти, хлеб ест.   Мать изредка грозится на нее. В сенях ходят, стучат, разговаривают: братнина   жена капусту рубит. «А, Аксинья!» — проговорил, наконец, больной. «Чего?» — «Квасу   дай». Подала ему Аксинья квасу.Тургенев, Записки Охотника

A few years ago a peasant belonging to another neighbour of mine in the country got burnt in the drying shed, where the corn is put.  (He would have remained there, but a passing townsman pulled him out half-dead; he plunged into a tub of water, and with a run broke down the door of the burning outbuilding.) I went to his hut to see him. It was dark, smoky, stifling, in the hut. I asked, “Where is the sick man?” “There, sir, on the stove,” the sorrowing peasant woman answered me in a sing-song voice. I went up; the peasant was lying covered with a sheepskin, breathing heavily. “Well, how do you feel?” The injured man stirred on the stove; burned all over, within sight of death as he was, he tried to rise. “Lie still, lie still . . . lie still. Well, how are you?” “In a bad way, surely,” said he. “Are you in pain?” No answer. “Is there anything you want?” No answer. “Shouldn’t I send you some tea, or anything.” “There’s no need.” I moved away from him and sat down on the bench. I sat there a quarter of an hour; I sat there half an hour–the silence of the tomb in the hut. In the corner behind the table under the holy images crouched a little girl of five years old, eating a piece of bread. Her mother threatened her every now and then. In the outer room there was coming and going, noise and talk: the brother’s wife was chopping cabbage. “Hey, Aksinya,” said the injured man at last. “What?” “Some kvas.” Aksinya gave him some kvas.

This short passage in Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Journal – preceded by the words “How wonderfully indeed dies the Russian peasant!” or «удивительно умирает русский мужик!» – got me thinking early on that there was something special about kvas. Like any typical American, I didn’t know much about kvas, but had heard the name. Kvas, for what I can only imagine is a typical American palate (mine), is also an acquired taste. It is fair to call it the “Russian Rootbeer,” for even though it tastes nothing like rootbeer, they love it (and dislike rootbeer), just like we dislike it (and love rootbeer).

In Kyrgyzstan, numerous types of kvas are available, from very sugary, carbonated versions that are basically soda, to very starchy, bready versions that are something closer to how I imagine a stout beer. In a valiant attempt to acclimate myself to this little piece of Russian culture, I tried all the kvas I could find: biokvas, monastery-kvas, the soda-like version, the kind sold from a large drum on the street, and so on. Some where waaaaay too yeasty for me; others were just right. I kept hunting, kept trying, and quickly came to love a nice cold glass of Russian kvas on a hot summer day. In fact, it was my first success story in the “acquired tastes” category, and today I’m even a bit of a kvas-evangelist, trying to introduce foreigners to its unique, smooth wonders.

(in the above photo, the only kind I’ve tried is the one in the middle of the top row with the monk in black on the label!)

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Reflections upon Reentry

After being away from the good ole’ USA for over a year, several things struck me when we came back for the holidays.

  • Before even landing on American soil, I was surprised that the flight attendants were putting ice in the drinks. Ice! We rarely take the trouble to put ice in our drinks anymore.
  • During my first trip to a grocery store I saw both strawberries and watermelon. What?! It’s December people. These fruits are not in season. I haven’t seen those fruits since probably August in Kyrgyzstan.
  • When I used sugar in my coffee at my parents’ house, I was convinced that they had put Splenda or Sweet-n-low in their sugar bowl. The sugar was too fine and too sweet. My normal Kyrgyzstan amount was overwhelming. I wasn’t convinced otherwise until I saw the sugar in its original packaging.
  • There is so much variety. How do I quickly choose what to order in your drive-through or standing in line at the mall when impatient customers are waiting behind me? I’m not sure I can handle the pressure! Do I even remember what I like on my burger?
  • Foods that I was desperately missing while away don’t necessary taste as good as I remembered.
  • Here’s a shocker: Everyone is speaking English! I can understand everyone!

I have realized that I have changed since being away and that the changes I’ve made to feel at home in Kyrgyzstan have made the USA feel a little less like home. I think I’m ok with that. It is difficult to adapt to another culture and the adaptation process has changed me in ways I did not expect. We are committed to making Kyrgyzstan home for now, so I’ll embrace my internal changes and appreciate the good things in both cultures.

And just for fun, I was introduced to this song by country singer Brad Paisley. I can relate to leaving my “southern comfort zone”. Enjoy!

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Beef… It’s what’s for Dinner

the best steak house on the planetAnyone who knows me knows that I love steak. You just can’t beat a perfectly grilled slab of beef. I love to season and grill my own steaks but I haven’t been able to do so in over a year because I have no grill in Kyrgyzstan. Nevertheless, steak remains a favorite, all be it, rare, meal.

When I travel I like to find a good steak house to try out. I can think of steak houses I have visited in seven countries on four continents with most of them being quite good. One of my favorites of all time was in Mexico City where one steak was big enough to feed the Dugger family.  Sadly though, the couple of steaks I’ve had in Kyrgyzstan were somewhat lacking. Now don’t get me wrong, there are other good food options available, but steak isn’t one of them.

I recently was in Istanbul, Turkey for a few days and got to try out a steak house a friend had recommended. He hyped it so much I really didn’t think it would be all that great. The place is called Gunaydin and it is on the Asian side of the waters. I have to say, this place is amazing!! It is by far the best steak house I have ever been to. Our party of four was treated like royalty by staff who generally enjoy their work. The meats are all dry aged in house and cooked perfectly, often in butter! I think we had a total of 7 different cuts of meat plus appetizers all served up fresh by a team of men who never let a water glass drop by more than half a glass before being refilled.

I know this blog is about life in Karakol but this experience was so incredible that I had to tell about it. Where else would I have filet mignon, T-bone, prime rib, kabob, lamb shoulder, and more all in one meal and all cooked and seasoned perfectly? I am ashamed to say that it blows away any steak house I have been to in the US, including those that cost twice as much. Now if I could only figure out how to get them to open up a location in Karakol, everyone would know where to find me and I would no longer be half the man I used to be!

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The Telegram

Family is huge in this part of the world. It is the end-all and be-all for a person. It is the one group that a person is “in” for better or for worse. Family is the most important unit in a person’s life and it is a huge disgrace to be “outcasted”. The aspect of family sticking together no matter what is very admirable, but I guess it depends on which side of the fence a person is standing. For example, if one needs money, he goes to the person who has the most money in his family and that person is obligated by family ties to give to the one asking. Great, right? Well it is if you’re the one who needs money, but not so great if you’re the one who everyone goes to when they need money. In the end family is the lifeline. It makes sense that when we read stories connected to family, most answers from students fall in line with this thinking.

One story we read was about an elderly mother who wanted to see her daughter because she had not seen her in three years and the mother felt that she wouldn’t survive the winter. The mother sent her daughter a telegram asking her to return home, even for one day just so that she could hold her daughter’s hand. The teacher then asked the students, “What do you think? Will the daughter return home?” All answered, “Yes. Of course she will.” The idea of a daughter not returning home to see her sick, possibly dying mother was almost inconceivable. “Why do you think that?” the teacher asked. “Well it’s her mother. She has to see her mother.” The daughter received the telegram at work, quickly stuffed it in her pocket and resolved to read it at home. Once home, she opened the envelope and read as her mother called her “darling daughter” and told her to come home so they could see each other before the mother dies. She placed the telegram on a desk and walked away, having decided the trip to her mother would be too bothersome and inconvenient. A couple weeks later the daughter received another telegram telling her that her mother had died. The daughter rushed to pack her things for the trip home, hoping to make it back for the funeral but came upon complications in getting a train. “Will the daughter make it home for the funeral?” the teacher asked. Most believed that she would.

The story ended with the daughter arriving 2 days after the funeral because she had missed the earlier train by mere minutes. She quietly entered and left the little town, too embarrassed to be seen and asked questions. The teacher asked what we felt for the mother and the daughter. They called the girl crazy or foolish for not returning home and ungrateful to her mother. Maybe she even deserved not being able to make it to the funeral. They felt pity for the mother and, almost, disdain for the daughter. It was a feeling shared by most. Our homework assignment was to pretend that we were sitting across from the daughter on her train ride back to the city. What would we say to her if she told us all the events that had happened? Some scolded her, others tried to comfort, but it all came down to the fact that she needed to be there for her one and only mother. No one else could fill the gap or role of a mother, and the daughter was foolish for not recognizing that earlier.