There are recycled bottles, recycled cardboard, recycled paper. Then there are recycled shipping containers. I always am amazed at the resourcefulness of the Kyrgyz people. I am also amazed at how many shipping containers just end up here. Ones that have probably cris-crossed the ocean, or some far away country on trains or trucks, get parked right here in Karakol to be turned into a store or a hotel or an office building. They are like portable buildings: cut a hole, you have a window. Or leave it as is, and open it wide, hang clothes on the doors and on the walls and you have a store. To close the store? close the container doors. The only minus is they are not the best for big swings in the weather: on cold winter days it is like a meat locker inside. On hot days, it is so stifling you can hardly breath. Convenience rarely means comfort. Nevertheless, I will always have a warm place in my heart for the container stores that make up our bazaars. It is like going on a treasure hunt walking through the labyrinth of containers to find a new skirt, or the right light bulb or brown sugar. I usually leave with a smile on my face and my arms going numb lugging my bags back home.
One of the biggest holidays here in Kyrgyzstan is Nooryz. This is when they celebrate the Kyrgyz New Year and is a time full of traditional games, foods, and house building. A few of my students told me that they wanted to take me around on Nooryz to show me all of the goings on in the town and to show me what their traditional houses and attire look like. We started in the center of town and made our way around the temporary yurt houses set up in the middle of the square. The yurts are circular tent-like houses with a domed roof that are native to the Kyrgyz people. We also had the chance to see some men and women dressed in their traditional gear, and once we had exhausted all of the sites in the center, we decided to move on to the park where carnival-like rides were keeping children occupied and old grandmothers were preparing food for any passerby feeling a bit hungry. At lunchtime we sat down and enjoyed some Ashlanfoo (a local dish here with noodles, spices, a little bit of meat, etc…) in the park and then headed out looking for somewhere else to go. After a quick stop in the Russian-Orthodox Church (none of us had been before and we were really curious), we thought a picnic would be the perfect way to end the holiday. We bought some food and soda and took a marshrutka (Kyrgyz bus) to the bottom of their ski base, walked up a little ways to a restaurant situated on the slopes and enjoyed snacks while just hanging out and talking. While seeing all of the festivities surrounding Nooryz was interesting and fun, I think my favorite part about the holiday is the emphasis it places on family and friends and the importance of spending time together.
We, as Americans, like our space. This can be seen by the houses we build, the vehicles we buy, even how much clearance we need to pass someone on the road. The aisles in our stores have grown to accommodate our growing need for space and what we find comfortable. Our personal space is important and is our domain.
I don’t doubt that personal space is important here in Kyrgyzstan but the distance needed is not nearly as large. My first year here was fairly uncomfortable as I learned to get adjusted to the closer person-to-person interactions. At the bazaars there is constant pushing to make one’s way through. To get off of crowded public transportation one must not be modest and expect people to move aside; you push your way to the front. Even for vehicles, the space needed for maneuvering is just what is needed.
When we first started driving I was so nervous that we were too close to the other cars. My imaginary brake pedal has gone through the floorboard more than twice. My friends stand closer. Not being a very touchy person, the normal hug-and-kiss greeting for female friends felt “not normal” when I first got here. Now the hug-and-kiss greeting is appreciated. Maneuvering around the bazaar is not a problem. I actually prefer to be on a marshrutka that is jam-packed because it means I don’t need to hold on to the railings. Our little joke about the marshrutka is if you can still breathe comfortably then there’s room for more people. I no longer have to make up excuses for my foot pounding into the floorboard because it happens less. My husband says that he knows the “whiskers” of the vehicle, which means, just like a cat, he knows his boundaries while driving.
It felt claustrophobic at the beginning and I didn’t realize how much I had adjusted til we went home the first time. My parents had bought a new truck and when I sat down in it I was amazed at how spacious it was. It was huge! I didn’t know what to do with all the space. That was one of the culture shocks I experienced on our return home: wide aisles, cars, and roads. While there are still aspects of life where I crave space (like in an office) I think I have learned how to do more with less.
There are many things I take for granted in America. Like eating without any worries about what is in my food. I know that there are many things in food that I have heard around the internet. Like pink slime in ground beef, high fructose corn syrup in everything, pesticides, chemicals, and every other “non-natural” thing that is in food. But what I am talking about are tiny rocks, dirt, bugs, hair, and teeth on the rare occasion (see the story of the tooth in the ice cream). Here is one such food story:
One normal weekday, I was with my wife and we were deciding where to eat for lunch. We had just finished our Russian lesson at the university. We decided to go to the museum cafeteria on our way to the student center where we worked. We found this cafeteria some time ago with our friend, Anthony. It was a dive! You could not beat the price of the food anywhere in town. The food was okay. We walked into the small cafeteria that is located on the side of the Kyrgyz history museum. I got my usual “ganfan”, a rice dish with vegetables and a tiny portion of shredded meat. LaVena ordered plov, another rice dish with meat and some vegetables. We got settled and brought our meals and tea to the corner where we usually ate. We chatted about class as we ate. I always eat fast and LaVena eats slowly. As I scarfed down my rice dish, I crunched down hard into a bite of my food. I heard the crackle of teeth and something hard in my bite of ganfan. LaVena saw the look on my face and asked if I was okay. I spit out my food into a napkin and I saw a tiny rock among the rice. I felt my front tooth to make sure it was fine. As I examined the tooth, a tiny sliver of my tooth was stuck to finger. “I chipped my tooth” I said to my wife in an extremely surprised high pitched voice. I was done eating and we left. I walked and complained to LaVena. She told me, “You should start eating slower.” I took her advice and to this day I am always conscious of how I eat and especially what I eat. But she still eats slower than me.
What would we say is the essential piece of furniture in the American culture? The Lay-Z-boy? The couch? Dining room or kitchen table? I realized the incredible disconnect and variety of furniture that we find important may be something that people in a different part of the world have no concept of. This came up in an English lesson I was recently teaching. We were going through the different rooms of the house: kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom. The lesson was designed to introduce prepositions, but I didn’t expect that this lesson would actually be teaching much more basic aspects of an American culture. The first question that popped up was: what is a living room? This actually stumped me. “well, it is where the American family spends their time doing life together.” Be it watching TV, reading, doing homework, working on the computer. We spend our time together in that room. Hmmm… I could tell that I was already on shaky ground to begin with. The look in their eyes communicated total puzzlement. Life together, what does that look like in a rural Kyrgyz home?
The one thing I know is central is the tushuk. These are the center pieces of furnishing in either the nomadic home or the city appartment: they are the couch, the dining room chairs, the bed, the blankets, even the wedding dowry. Some are cheap, factory made with garish fabric, and others are crafted together with a beautiful patchwork design. In small simple living spaces they are easily spread out and gathered up: piled in the corner or hung outside to freshen up. Most mornings, I see women lug piles outside to hang over banisters and clothes lines to allow the fresh air and sunshine to clean their tushuks. There is a lot of life lived on those tushuks!
Every year in March, Kyrgyzstan celebrates Women’s Day. I assumed that it would be celebrated similarly to Mother’s Day in America, you know when you send an ecard to your mom or maybe buy some flowers or go out to eat, but it turned out to be a much bigger holiday than I expected. Most women in Kyrgyzstan work hard every day, but this is the one day that they get to sit back a little and relax. As my friend and I went to serve tea and bread that morning, he taught me how to say happy women’s day in Russian and we started passing everything out. Normally people are fighting to get their food, but on Women’s Day the men made sure that all of the women got served first as everyone shouted happy women’s day wishes to each other.
Later that day, I was invited to go with some of my friends to their landlord’s house for dinner. I decided it would be nice to take something to them since it was the first time I would be in their home and since it was such a big holiday for the women. As I walked through the bazaar everyone was rushing around in a frenzy buying last minute gifts, food items, and tons and tons of cakes! Bakers on every corner were selling beautifully decorated cakes and men swarmed around them trying to buy for their wives and mothers. I finally settled on a cake and headed out to meet my friends. The evening was a blast and the cake was absolutely delicious, but what I really enjoyed was spending time with the women sitting around the table who ordinarily would have been busy scurrying around the kitchen preparing food.
So, for that last two months, Magevney and I have been in Istanbul, Turkey, where our second child was born one month ago. We are excited to be returning to Karakol in the next few days and finally get to introduce our youngest daughter to our adopted home. Now, while we have been in Turkey, we have attempted to keep plugging away at learning Russian. That may sound strange to try to study Russian in Turkey, but there are a lot of Russian speakers here.
There are a lot of Central Asians living in Istanbul. It is hard to put a firm number on it but it is easily upward of 100,000 or more, just in Istanbul. Add to that the large number of Russians who vacation in Turkey and you have a reasonably large number of Russian speakers, even native speakers. So we have tried to make use of that fact and worked with a Central Asian university student while here.
But that hasn’t been all. I’ve actually had several Russian encounters by chance on the streets. Many times, I’ve heard Russian spoken on the street by tourists. But on several occasions I was able to have conversations. The first was as my oldest daughter and I were out one morning and an older man stopped to talk. When I said I don’t speak Turkish, he immediately asked if I spoke German. I don’t but I thought, “I’ll try some Russian and see what happens.” Well, next thing I knew, I was having a conversation with this random man in Russian outside a shopping mall in Istanbul!
Fast forward a couple of weeks and Magevney and I are going to a friend’s apartment for dinner. When we arrive, we are introduced to a friend of theirs who is Central Asian and speaks very good Russian. We spent the evening talking in Russian with her, English with our friends, and they conversed together in a two other languages! (That actually has happened twice to me here, multi-lingual conversations, the other time in an Uzbek café.)
Then the third time also came as I was walking home one afternoon with my oldest daughter. This time, I thought I would show her a small fish stand off the main road. As we neared, I was speaking in English to her and lifted her up the high curb to see the fish. It was rather cool that day in Istanbul, at least by local standards. It was probably mid 60’s so we were not wearing coats. We were in t-shirts and were probably the only ones on the street without a coat. The fish seller looked up at us and instantly greeted me, in Russian! Why?? Was it our lack of coats? Our pasty white skin? I don’t know why I didn’t ask him why Russian, but nevertheless, I got a little more impromptu Russian practice.
So I guess Russian isn’t a bad option for travel, though I do recommend Turkish when in Turkey.