Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

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A Way I’d Like to Live

Growing up my family had a big field and we grew watermelon, cantaloupe, and squash. My summers as a kid were spent waking up early to weed our field. Oh how I hated waking up early to work in the field, but after I went to college I somewhat missed it. Living in my university city I found myself wishing that my then-non-existent children would have the same type of experience (definitely looking through rose-colored glasses at that time). It was hard work and I always thought that it had to be hard work.

Yet, one thing I’ve learned from living in Karakol is that it doesn’t have to be such hard work to grow your own food…and I love that. Many homes have a vegetable garden, a few fruit trees, and maybe a few berry bushes. People take what they need and either sell or give away the rest. The bazaars have many people selling the fruit of their labors: fresh and canned fruits, vegetables, and spices. The best time of the year is when the older babooshkas (grandmothers) come out and sell their small, yet very delicious strawberries and raspberries. They are unlike anything I have tasted back home. Driving through villages outside the city, people line the road selling apples and apricots from their gardens.

I feel like I make it more complicated than it really is. Here, it’s just a way of life. It makes sense, right? There is a time where lots of work is needed but getting to take part in the harvest is so worth the effort. Looking around and seeing how, on some level, people are self-sufficient is encouraging and challenging. In a country that doesn’t have a lot of conveniences from a Western viewpoint, it has taught me the value of earning my food through work. For example, last fall I embarked on my first experience with canning. It was several days work for spaghetti sauce, apple butter, apple sauce, apricot butter, and canned apricots but each time I open one of those cans I’m so thankful for that process. This newfound appreciation for “hard” work is something I hope will change the way I live back home.

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Weather Can Be Strange

Winter was a very mild one for us this year. We knew and heard that winters in Karakol are not as cold as in Bishkek. We were looking forward to this since we have had a few very cold winters in the past. This winter, though, was abnormally warm and all our local friends said that it was very unusual. Spring came early to Karakol and the roads were fairly dry compared to early March the year before. We had a couple weeks of great warming-up-but-still-cool weather, but one day we woke up and there had been a light dusting of snow. This was not unusual since I know that Colorado gets the same thing every year. By mid-morning there was no sign that snow was even around. The day warmed up, birds were chirping, and the sun was shining bright. It seemed as though the snow had actually refreshed the greenery because all the trees looked so bright and green. The next week the same thing happened. Derrick and Ryan got up and there was more snow on the ground than the week before. “Snow!” was Ryan’s chant as he raced back into the room to tell me of his luck. Sadly all our winter gear had either been thrown away, packed, or given away. Poor kid wouldn’t be playing in the snow as far as non-snow shoes were concerned. As with the week before, by afternoon all was warm and cozy. The next morning Ryan crawled out of bed and ran to our kitchen window. He enthusiastically cried out, “Snow!” and with a sleep-filled voice I corrected him saying that the snow was all gone. I pulled myself out of bed, looked outside, and there was snow! It was heavier than the day before and blanketed everything with fluffy white. I stood there thinking hard about how many layers I would have to put on in order to stay warm at the university. Did I put my boots away already? Where were they? I hadn’t worn them for weeks. It was amazing to me that only once, maybe twice, in the whole winter had it snowed like it just had in the middle of spring. Well, in the end the sun came out, warmed the land, and proved to be snow’s kryptonite once again. The only thing that was a reminder of the snow that morning was the steam billowing up from the streets as the sun warmed the blacktop.

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Banya or Shower?

Recently for a homework assignment we needed to ask at least five people a simple question that we had thought up. My question was, “If you had your own house, what would you prefer an inside shower or a banya?” A banya is basically a sauna and is the main form of bathing in Kyrgyzstan. Most houses, especially in the village, do not have indoor plumbing so a bathing house is built next to the main house. It is usually two rooms, with one being the readying room and the other where the bathing happens. It takes some time to get the banya ready due to needing to warm up the room and getting the rocks hot enough to make steam.

I asked some people this question, thinking that at least half might prefer doing things as usual versus needing to install indoor plumbing. The answers took me a bit by surprise. Most answered that they would prefer an inside shower to a banya. “It’s more comfortable,” they answered. “You don’t have to go outside in the winter to bathe and it won’t take a long time to have to heat,” others answered. One girl said with a laugh, “With a banya maybe only once a week a person will bathe because it takes a lot of work, but with a shower you could take one every day.”
Then they asked me what I would prefer. I told them I love going to saunas but explained to them that in America going to a sauna is expensive and that sometimes a person would need to become a member of a club to be able to go. I said that living in Kyrgyzstan is great because going to a sauna is normal here. It isn’t expensive, is very easily accessible, and everyone has a sauna house. How so very lucky! Only the rich in America have their own personal sauna houses, but I would love to have a banya in my house. I said that it could just be that for me it is exotic and new, since I grew up with boring showers. They laughed at me and said that if I ever get to build my own home I can build it with a banya and be happy.

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I sat unnervingly in the barber’s chair the first time I got a haircut in Bishkek. Not knowing the language I didn’t know if the barber totally understood what it is I wanted. I had heard stories of people going to get a certain cut and walking out with something they didn’t want. Before the cut I told my husband that I would be back quickly because we were expecting some people to stop by our apartment. I thought it wouldn’t take long because my hair was short. Little did I know that a usual barber visit takes at least an hour. When setting up an appointment there is no “let’s see how many people we can fit in an hour.” It’s a “you have the whole hour to get your haircut and we will use every minute of it” appointment. The cut itself didn’t take long but afterwards she measured, and measured, and measured to make sure it was even on both sides. I thought we were almost done but she wasn’t even halfway finished. She then started to thin my hair a bit, then measured again to make sure it was even, taking little snips here and there.

I checked my watch to see how late I was; Not too bad, only maybe 15 minutes. Then the hair dryer came out. I had never blown dry my hair straight before. I had no idea it would take so long. After blow-drying there was more measuring. Okay, we’re finally done, right? Well now it was time for the style, which meant more blow-drying and a hair straightener. Overall the total time she took was an hour to an hour and a half. The thing that impressed me was how much care and attention she took on my hair. I had never had anyone cut so attentively. Every haircut after this one has been the same: Cut, measure, measure again, blow-dry, straighten, style. I have not had one experience that was less than 45 minutes. I’m of the opinion that hair grows back, so even though I may have not loved every single haircut, I do appreciate the care and attentiveness that I’ve received every time. My most recent haircut I felt guilty about getting because it was so expensive compared to other places, 500 som, but I loved it. The cost in dollars? $10.64.

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Lessons from Kyrgyzstan: A Couple of Inches Is More Than Enough

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.


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Lessons from Kyrgyzstan: I Can’t Control Everything

In the Matrix Trilogy the plot centers around choice, and at the end of the second movie (spoiler alert) Neo is presented with the truth that choice is all an illusion. That no one, even he, really has a choice. As Americans coming to Kyrgyzstan I believe the illusion we have is control. We come from a place where we can control many factors of our environment because there are many things that are constant and “just work.” There is little fear of electricity going out, having no water, or having no internet access. It’s just there. If the repairman says he’ll be at your home at a certain time, he’ll be there (although I do know this isn’t always the case). We make plans to meet someone on a certain day at a certain time, and when it doesn’t work out we reschedule. That’s our culture.

The culture here is different. Often, if something comes up unexpectedly plans cannot be rescheduled for a later time. Many times I have set up my order of business for the day and have had to either move tasks around or settle for getting only two things done, which in our part of the world is a huge accomplishment.

Now that the weather has been warm our electricity is not as stable as it was when it was cold. This means that any internet-related work cannot be started (or completed) and clothes can’t be washed. Luckily we have a gas burning stove, but we can’t predict when it will go out and will need to buy another tank. We make sure to keep on top of bills because a late payment means that it’ll take at least a couple days to get utilities back on. Back to back appointments are difficult to manage because if one doesn’t happen on time then all get backlogged. In some cases this is okay, like when it comes to unexpected visits with friends or extra long talks with students.

The result of the lesson learned is flexibility: There is more than one way to skin a cat. There are other days to get things done. Some duties can wait. When those days of power and water outages come, some times it is best to eat by candlelight, take Ryan outside for some fresh air, and go to bed a little earlier. Really, the only thing I can control is my reaction to the outside factors and environment, and not letting those factors control me.


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Lessons from Kyrgyzstan: Take It Slow

One of the lessons that I have learned while living in Kyrgyzstan is sometimes we just need to slow down, because the pace of getting things done is much slower here. This applies to all aspects of life, from driving to eating. When driving it is best to take a deep breath, put your foot on the brake pedal, swallow your pride, and just take your time getting there. It is not worth getting into an accident to save a couple minutes of time. There are many stresses: A four-lane road can easily have six lanes (three in both directions), there are pedestrians crossing the road at all times, cars weave in and out of lanes, policemen are dotted along main roads, vehicles involved in accidents are out in the road, and public transportation stops at any place (not just at designated bus stops).

We didn’t start driving here til our second year. At first it was very nerve-wracking and we made many mistakes, like not giving ourselves enough time to reach our destination. Even when enough time is planned there are still many things that cannot be accounted for. We didn’t get comfortable with driving til after our first major traffic jam. It was the week of a political summit in Bishkek, all major roads were closed, and it was dinnertime. It took us 1.5-2 hours to get home and the back roads were all packed. People were cutting each other off to get any kind of advantage, and we were inches away from other cars in all directions. I kept my head down to avoid eye contact with other drivers while my husband did his best to creep along. We had cars honking at us, people glared, a few drivers gave us the “you’re crazy” sign, and we had a couple very close calls. We got home, sighed a sigh of relief, and the anxiety of driving melted away. We had survived our first traffic jam. Rushing does nothing but bring stress, while taking it slow makes the journey a bit more bearable.