Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

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The Translation Gig

I guess being asked by your friends to translate for them is a compliment, but wow is it work! While out running on Saturday, a friend called to ask for my help with translation for some Americans visiting Karakol on Sunday. Would I be interested? Yes, of course, I’m always interested in translating, since it is so much fun, but I don’t necessarily have the time and energy to do it, as it is also very draining.

Actually, my enjoyment of translation has been a real surprise for me. I didn’t expect that I would find it so invigorating trying to move from English to Russian and back again, but whether you’re talking about working on a document or a live conversation, it is really a blast.

Probably part of what I like is that I don’t have to work to come up with the words. When I’m trying to speak Russian, I usually have a hard time finding words in Russian. I could also try thinking in English and then translating in my head, but that’s not very ideal long-term, so I try to think in Russian as I go, and it means that my conversation can be limited to the words I can remember in Russian. It is easier to have someone else say something in English, and then the Russian words are actually associated with those English words in the brain, so when I hear the English one the Russian one more naturally comes to mind.

Another aspect of translation that I find interesting is how often I can’t think of the right word. This is to be expected going from someone’s English into Russian, but it is surprising how often I understand the Russian just fine and yet it takes work to figure out how to express it in my native English.

Finally, translation highlights the fact that there are words for which Russian is like my first language since I never used them in English, such as смородина. Immediately when I hear that word, the Russian is obvious, the Kyrgyz comes to mind (карагат), and I have to work to find the English (currant, typically the black ones). Imagine – there is at least one word for which English is my third language!

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Another Running Post

IMG_20130220_185648In the fall I wrote a post titled, “Top Ten Reasons Running in Karakol is Awesome.” I didn’t quit running, and since then have added nearly another four months to my running repertoire in Karakol’s wintery conditions (read: sunshine, cold air, snow and ice). Today I don’t have a Top Ten list, but rather a collection of my observations “on the run.”

Running is a rare activity here. In the more than 200 hours I’ve been out on my feet here, I have passed exactly nine (9) girls and two young men who were also running. In the same amount of time, I’m nearly positive I’ve had over 1000 people burst out laughing, jog with exaggerated stupid antics in front of me, “stealthily” jog behind me while their friends laugh, or otherwise mock me while I was running. The 100-1 ratio is at least interesting.

Children love to run. In Kyrgyzstan, kids come and go from school all day long (some have the morning shift, others the afternoon), so it seems like whenever I pass a school, there are children coming and going. And many of the younger ones will start to jog with me. So I say, “Come on, a little faster,” and pick up the pace. They do as well, laughing and breathing hard. I repeat the speed increase a couple times, and leave them in the dust. It is a fun way to get a stride or two into your run, and it is better than being mocked.

Running terrain is hard to classify. Despite the fact that at least half of my running is on “roads,” the most typical surfaces I find myself on are: mud, snow, sheets of perfectly smooth ice, and (my favorite) 1” of mud over a bed of frozen ground (i.e. slippery and messy). Depending on the day, I can’t decide which I hate the most. 🙂  This is particularly confusing because I use a Garmin Forerunner GPS watch, and it always asks me to classify my runs into categories like “road running” OR “trail running,” and I always want to say, “Yep.”

Running in Karakol is a great way to stick out more than the typical foreigner. Maybe this is obvious from how rarely people run, but I will state it nonetheless. My wife met some people recently who knew me because I run by their house in the mornings. “Oh, you’re married to him.” (I’m not sure if this bit goes with this point or with the point about being made fun of, but when I ran during a snowstorm, people rolled down their car windows to talk to me as they passed, including one guy who called out, “Are you normal?”)


Hospitality and the Parting Gift

In Kyrgyzstan, one of the most readily-apparent aspects of Kyrgyz hospitality customs is the doggy-bag. Whenever you are invited to a meal in a Kyrgyz home, you are in for a “double portion,” as they will overfeed you while you’re there, and then pack away extra food in a plastic bag for you as you leave.

Regarding the “overfeeding” in Kyrgyz homes, recently I served as a translator for some Americans interested in investing in small businesses in Kyrgyzstan. Their tour of the Karakol area involved looking at some farms and some small home businesses and – of course – drinking a lot of tea with various hosts. One host had even prepared lunch: plov, a tasty beet salad, and the wonderful tomato-carrots-garlic-and-spicy sauce that is ever-present in the winter here: I call it “Kyrgyz salsa,” because I can’t remember the name!  While we were eating, the Americans were asking questions, and I was translating stories from the host and his friends.

Culturally, I thought one of the best bits was when he tried to describe an aspect of Kyrgyz hospitality with the words, “In Kyrgyzstan, we force our guests to eat more.” He was right. I cannot remember a single meal at someone’s house where I wasn’t – numerous times – encouraged to eat. Not eating and eating and eating is a way to show disrespect to the host, so I always strive to eat a good portion (though I also eat slowly, in order to protect my stomach from unnecessary stretching!).

At another home – after eating way more than I would normally eat for dinner – the roll of plastic bags appeared and healthy portions of meat began to be divided up between me and Jose (a friend that was also a guest in the home). Large chunks of Kyrgyz-style pot-roast (for lack of a better descriptor) and fresh rolls were put into plastic bags and handed to us. Then my friend was also given a bottle of kefir for his wife (who wasn’t with us), and a large jar of black currant preserves (also for his wife).

“I don’t have anything to put this in, Daryl, but you can go over to Jose’s house to have some,” Aigul said to me. It struck me as funny that I was being invited to Jose’s house by Aigul, but it was just her way of saying to me, “I want to be hospitable and share this with you as well, but it would be awful to just dump the preserves in a plastic bag. So, please have some. You’ll just have to walk to his house.” I asked her if she had just invited me to his house, and we all had a good laugh together. How great to be able to joke with people in their own language!

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The saying goes, “You learn something new every day.” The other night, I had the privilege of being a guest for dinner in a local Kyrgyz household, and the conversation turned to some other Americans that had worked with this particular Kyrgyz family in the past.

“When his parents came the second time, they remembered how much meat we had eaten the first time they came and how we had old, poor-quality knives, and they brought us a set of knives as a gift,” Aigul says to me, getting up to show me the knife set in a nice wooden block. “But when he gave it to us, we have a tradition,” she continued, “If someone gives you a knife, you must give them something back for it. It is a cold weapon. So depending on what they’ve given you, you have to give them maybe a sheep or even a small horse, or a goat or even just money.”

I wasn’t sure I knew what a “cold weapon” was, but it was clear that a knife fell within the category (according to the dictionary, “cold weapon” is the term for a sidearm), and that the tradition in Kyrgyzstan involves giving a gift in return.

“Why do you give them something in return if the knife is just a gift?”

“We always pay for a knife, because if someone gives you a knife as a gift, it means that you will become enemies. It is a cold weapon, after all. So you have to give them something. We never give each other knives as gifts.”

Curious, I pressed on. “In the United States, often a father will give his son a knife, maybe when he is 8 years old, or 10 years old, for his birthday. Do you do that here?”

The husband piped up quickly, “No, of course we do not give them knives. Ever. Maybe down in Southern Kyrgyzstan where they are influenced by Uzbek culture – because you know that every Uzbek carries a knife at their side – but here Kyrgyz people don’t carry knives. It is a sidearm, y’know. But we do give each other какое-нибудь русское слово здесь.”

Confused, I sought clarification, and Aigul jumped up to get hers and show me. Turns out, they were talking about a Swiss Army Knife, which is apparently perfectly okay to give to someone else, since it isn’t really a weapon.

One last point adds a little humor to the story: both times I’ve been in Aigul’s house for dinner, I’ve made a comment about the butter knife being a weapon when it was handed to me…

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Bathrooms vs. Outhouses

Our plumber had to come visit again. It sounds bad, but really, I’m always excited whenever he comes over. He is just one of the most jovial, friendly, and patient men I know. I always have a good time with him, and I usually end up learning something interesting as well. This time we took apart a toilet tank, a shower head, and worked under the kitchen sink.

Our toilet had stopped refilling after a recent water outage. I assumed it was because our water in Karakol is really dirty, particularly after “maintenance” or upgrades or whatever else the city does when it shuts off our water. So, the water was off for a day or two, and when the water came back on, the toilet didn’t work. I was pretty sure it was plugged somewhere, I just wasn’t sure how to clean it out. Plumbers are cheap (and ours is friendly), so it isn’t a big deal to call one up and watch what they do so you can learn. In the case of my plumber, no “watching” is involved, as he usually talks and teaches as he goes, explaining things and forcing me to do them. In the case of the plugged intake valve on the toilet, for example, “we” (read: I) used a foot pump (like for bicycle tires) to force the muck out of the valve with compressed air. He told me that in Karakol it is good to use an air compressor twice a year to clean all the plumbing in our house out due to the glacial silt in the water.

While we were talking (he got halfway through some interesting stories from childhood and his time in the army in Turkmenistan before remembering that he wanted to get the job done and leave!), I mentioned how we didn’t have water for a couple days, and how I realized that I don’t mind using the outhouse. “My wife, however, really likes her toilet to work, so I’m really glad you came to help me fix it,” I said.

He smiled and said, “I also prefer using the outhouse.”

“Why is that?” I asked, curious.

“Well, when I’m in a bathroom, I’m ashamed – people might be able to hear me or hear the water and know what I’m doing. I don’t like that. It is shameful. So I prefer to go outside.”

We have an English discussion group taking place with mostly younger people. I took a survey, just out of curiosity, of how many of them prefer outhouses to bathrooms. The verdict? Most of them said they prefer using outhouses (one said, “For the fresh air”… not sure what outhouse he has been in lately), though a couple waffled due to the winter. Seems like more research might be needed here…

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Life Without Water

Sometimes the living conditions in Karakol can be a bit … frustrating. (Incidentally, I love using that word, because Russian has no equivalent!)  The problems here are usually just little things, but it is amazing how little things can stack up and seem huge. Recently, we went through an eight or nine day period in which each day we suffered through outages of either power, water, or internet access. Talk about frustrating!

First, power being out is a bit of a problem, because our house is heated with an electric heater. We can start a fire with wood or coal if we need to, but our reserves are a bit lower than I’d like, so I always start getting nervous when the lights suddenly wink out and the battery back-up system under the desk starts beeping. We scramble to shut down the computer quickly enough (the battery back-up doesn’t really work as advertized, so we literally have “moments” to get this done), and then we begin to wonder: do I put on an extra layer right now and start conserving heat?

Lacking internet access isn’t really a “hardship,” per se, but it is particularly annoying. We don’t need it to survive, but … when it isn’t working, it’s not like you’d realize that. The casual observer from another planet might guess from the example in our household that “this internet thing” was essential to life.

Water, however, has been the interesting one for me. Because we have very dirty water (think glacial silt, farming run-off, cattle, horses, goats, humans, etc.), we drink water from the Kyrgyzstan equivalent of the Culligan man. You can’t imagine our joy when we found out there was a supplier of bottled (18 liters at a time!), purified water! When our water goes out, we aren’t worried about drinking water (which would be quite a bit more stressful), but just have to live without showers, clean clothes, hand-washing, and flushing the toilet. As it turns out, I realized during our most recent outage (a two-day affair) that I miss indoor plumbing the most for showering (probably because I don’t do the laundry around here, as I do highly prefer clean clothing too!), and the least for the toilet.

our outhouse

We have an outhouse (a poorly-ventilated shack on the far side of our yard), and I’m perfectly comfortable throwing on some boots, a thick coat, and a hat and hiking over there. That which seemed incredibly odd to me when I first came to Kyrgyzstan (“What am I supposed to do with that hole in the ground?”) now seems perfectly normal, and in some ways even preferable. Now I can say, oddly enough, that wifi is more important than an indoor toilet!

our "hole in the ground"

our “hole in the ground”

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Tastes of Kyrgyzstan, Part 3

saladI hope you aren’t fed up with all this talk of tasty eats in Kyrgyzstan, because I’ve got a few more wonderful foods to consider before moving on to another topic. However, first – following a rabbit trail into Russian – I personally think it is awesome that Russians also use the expression “fed up.”

One of my favorite things to order in Kyrgyzstan is salad. At most restaurants, salads occupy a large portion of the menu (sometimes multiple pages of the menu), and cost anywhere from $1-5, depending on size and ingredients. Many restaurants have a basic subset of salads, including: “Exotic,” “Fresh,” “Greek,” “Carrot,” and “Olivier” (оливье). In many places, you’ll find things like “The Male Whim,” “The Hunter’s Salad,” and “Savory.”

My personal favorites are just a plain Fresh Salad (which means tomatoes, cucumbers, and olive oil – though be careful, because sometimes they put mayonnaise on instead) or a Greek Salad (which is a Fresh Salad with the addition of Feta cheese, a few black olives, and occasionally some tiny chunks of lemon – a fantastic addition). A plain carrot salad is nice sometimes on a hot afternoon – shredded carrots, garlic, and vinegar. Yum!

Olivier (pronounced with a silent ‘r’, maybe like you’re speaking French) is incredibly popular in Russian-speaking countries, but I just can’t bring myself to love it. Typically, it is diced potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, some snow peas and diced carrots, and ham, plus a lavish helping of mayonnaise. (According to Wikipedia, it is popular in Iran, where chicken makes an appearance instead of the ham.) Olivier salad is an indispensible part of New Year’s Eve celebrations.

We were very excited the first time we tried the “Hunter’s Salad” in the village of Cholpon-Ata at the fantastic little restaurant “At the Fisherman’s.” This salad typically consists of a couple kinds of cheese (“hunter’s” and “Holland” in Russian), fresh cucumber, corn, boiled tongue or some good ham, and mayonnaise. I think the times we’ve had it in Kyrgyzstan, maybe it came with the tongue and the ham. Good stuff.

Oddly enough, I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten a “Male Whim” salad, but the recipe, I think, it something that is surely attractive to the (stereo-)typical male. Onions, boiled meat, boiled eggs, cheese, mayonnaise, and some vinegar.

Hunter's Salad

Hunter’s Salad, or what’s left of it