Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas In Jalalabad

Happy Holidays from Kyrgyzstan!

We have snow here in Osh (which is considered to be one of the warmest places), so I’m guessing that most of the country will be having a white Christmas. Of course, Christmas isn’t really celebrated in Kyrgyzstan, however, New Years seems to make a fine substitute complete with decorated Christmas x-mas trees, santa clause costumes, and lots of parties. “Snow-vumm Go-dumm” is Russian for Happy New Year!

Today (Christmas eve) I am headed about 3 hours north to Jalala-bad, to spend Christmas with some Peace Corps volunteers up there. Christmas in Jalala-bad—that has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?

Last week I moved into an apartment, centrally located in Osh and only 10 minutes walk to the Human Rights and Democracy Center. My yellow pear brick building looks like any other apartment building in Kyrgyzstan, old, bombed out, dilapidated and decaying. Most apartment buildings in Osh are three to four story rectangles about 75 yards long and 25 yards wide and nothing but steel skeletons with concrete flesh (and the occasional stucco or brick façade). I’m on the second floor in a one room apartment. As you enter my apartment, there is a corridor that leads about 10 feet to the left. At the end of the corridor are two curtains separating the hallway from the living room and there is a door leading into my bathroom on the right side. The bathroom has a tub, sink and a porcelain toilet. The right side of the sink, which hovers about 10 inches above the toilet, prevents one from raising the conventional toilet seat…ah, but in Kyrgyzstan nothing is conventional. My toilet seat is a wooden horseshoe that looks like it was made by an eighth grader in his first shop class. This splintery slab of warped wood sits freely atop the porcelain basin and can be removed depending on your desired output. If you wish to sit then lean forward and imagine the drawings in airplane safety manuals that instruct you to lean forward and lock your arms around your knees—this is what you will need to do, since your sink was installed directly above the toilet.

Had a nice dinner with the U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Steven Young and some of his staff the other week. They treated us (the volunteers in Osh) to a quasi-American meal in a Restaurant named Nirvana. I devoured a tasty chicken burrito, complete with salsa, sour cream and Spanish rice—a welcome change from fatty sheep meat. Nirvana also brews a cold tasty beverage called Academia Gold, which could compete with just about any microbrew in the states. Tax dollars never tasted so good.

I have all of next week off for the holidays—I’m hoping to use this time to explore some more of the city as well as make some needed purchases at the Bazaar (I’ve been drying off with a hand towel for the last week).

Other news
. One Hundred dollars has been returned to me by the family which I first started living with here in Osh and they have promised to return the remaining “missing cash”.

Well, I’m going to post this brief update while the connection still works, but before I do, I just wanted to thank everyone who has sent me emails, letters and packages—they’ve all been much appreciated! Have a safe and happy holiday!

Oh, and a shout out to all my friends and family! Love and miss ya!


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Osh In Waves

Taking in Osh isn’t too different from a three year old’s first time in the candy store--there’s just too many things to taste and experience all at once.

Painting the surreal: there is a large park on a hill in the center of Osh with trees and sidewalks and steps leading down to the river. As you walk down toward the river the wing of a plane emerges from behind the trees. Like studying the lines of a painting and their control over the direction of your wandering eyes, the horizontal hover of this wing forces you to look right and left instead of up and down at the trees and monuments. At first, all you can see is the wing’s tip emerge from edge of a bristly pine. You take another step, desiring to know whether this wing hovers, Houdini-like, in mid air, or if the illusion has a simpler explanation. You walk faster, but as you stride into this surreal landscape, the wing grows longer and wider and suddenly you grasp that it really is connected to an airplane.

The white “Aeroflat” airplane happens to be a Russian commercial passenger jet—and minus its warped windows and mossy weathered hue, you half expect a stewardess to appear and passengers to funnel out. The commercial jet’s landing gear is down, but the tires are flat, forming little half moons of black rubber on the grass and sidewalk. There are no plaques explaining the plane’s existence and the people in the park seem un-phased by the flying machine as they stroll under its belly and beneath its wings.

To confuse matters even more, mature trees surround this giant metal bird thwarting the brain’s calculations of how in the hell it got there. Mouth agape, you stare at the Aeroflat for some time until you notice locals gawking at you gawking at the plane. And then you purse your lips, flip-up your coat collar and walk on pretending like your new mission in life is to introduce commercial airliners to every public park in the world.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

What A Long Strange Trip It's Been! Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan.

Swearing In Fashion.
We made national television last Friday night, as we were sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers. The president of Kyrgyzstan was too busy to make it, however, after the ceremony we piled into two giant buses and attended a reception at the ambassador’s private residence. We were greeted by the ambassador, served pizza and miniature hamburgers, and introduced to such people as the CEO of Canada’s largest gold company (interestingly, when I was in Indonesia in 1996 I ran into the CEO of the Louisiana based McMoran Freeport Corporation in Surabaya—hmmm…Gold Barons and third-world countries…mere coincidence?); met the ambassador of Afghanistan in Kyrgyzstan and an executive from Freedom House publishing; as well as a variety of other expats and embassy personnel.

After the ambassador’s, we retired to the hotel to repack our bags for the long haul to our permanent sites. I stayed up until 4:30 AM visiting different rooms, saying good buy to the 65 “volunteers” with whom I had spent the last 11 weeks with. As anyone who has traveled with a group knows, strong bonds and friendships are forged quickly in intense situations. If nothing else, PST (pre-service training) was certainly intense. For many of us, Friday, December 3rd and Saturday the 4th would be the last time we’d see each other in country. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people quite realized the uniqueness of these past 11 weeks and the finality or closure that the swearing in ceremony represented. Yes, we are volunteers now, but I’ll never see most of these people again and I will certainly never see them all at the same place and at the same time. Good Luck to all of you!

Highlights at the Issyk Kul Hotel: Poker tournament—“No Limit Texas Hold’em”: I came in 3rd place out of 10; Talent Show—Nate solved a Rubic’s Cube in under 5 minutes, Erich turned a traditional Kyrgyz song into a rap, Mahima convinced the other trainees from her village to do a well choreographed Indian Dance, Taylor recited poetry, Greg played guitar, etc. Hats off to everyone—the show was beautifully done! Other highlights…Snowball fight. Cale and Sean (who has only seen snow a few times) managed to chuck a few snowballs up to our 3rd story balcony window—whereupon, we (my roommate, Brian Kiger and Greg) promptly re-cycled the snowball, returning it to its natural habitat (that is to say, we nailed Cale and Sean from 3 stories up). Everyone learned an important lesson that evening—snowballs pick up speed when hailed from above.

Saturday morning I woke up at 5:30AM (just an hour after going to bed) to the after effects of the worst snow storm this year (it actually wasn’t too bad). Our taxi (my co-passengers to Osh were John and Victoria) was supposed to leave at 5:30 AM. Mind you, I’m normally not late—so when I discovered that I had slept through my alarm (set for 5:00 AM), I was in a panic. I immediately finished packing and dragged my bags into the elevator. When the elevator opened in the lobby, I quickly discovered that I had nothing to worry about. Only one taxi had arrived so far (out of approximately 20) and it wasn’t going to Osh.

It took another two hours before we actually left the Hotel parking lot. The whole trip from Bishkek to Osh took about 15 hours. I slept a good five of those fifteen, took in the breathtaking scenery, talked with John and Victoria, and finished reading a November 29th Newsweek (which I conveniently liberated from the growing mound of Paleo-news magazines at Peace Corps HQ). Like re-constructing the skeletal frames of dinosaurs merely from their fossils, reading old news provides a framework which can help the blips of current news take form. Sometimes we see how the fragments fit together and other times we try and force them into beasts that never existed in the first place.

I arrived in Osh on Saturday night and toured the Bazaar on Sunday before moving the rest of my belongings into my host-family’s house Sunday evening. Sunday night, I also discovered that a good portion of the American cash that I had brought to Kyrgyzstan was missing from a book in my locked bedroom. I asked my brother if there was a spare key (Peace Corps requires the families to give us the complete set of keys to our rooms), “just in case I loose my keys…do you have an extra one?”—and discovered that the answer was “Yes.” I also brought the book that the money was stashed in, into the living room that night and pretended to read it—I was actually gauging people’s reactions as they walked by. It was not a fun evening for me—I don’t enjoy heightened levels of suspicion and deceit, especially when it was with a family that I was supposed to be a part of.

I spent my first day at work on Monday morning awkwardly describing the theft and my suspicions. My organization reacted with sympathy and regret that the incident occurred. I also sensed a little fear, since they were the ones who placed me with this family. As you might imagine, this kind of incident is considered extremely shameful and to complicate matters, the director of my organization and my oldest host-brother (who no longer lives at home) were old classmates. This oldest brother also happens to by a detective in the Osh police force—which has enough power to make or break an organization…so you can see the multiple layers of complexity the situation presented.

I pretended as if nothing happened on Monday night and returned home and surreptiously packed the majority of my bags. On Monday afternoon, I left work with two of my co-workers and we drove to my village where I gathered my belongings and said goodbye to a host-sister (who happened to be the only family member there). We then drove to another part of Osh, where I unloaded all of my belongings and temporarily moved in to an apartment with two K11 peace corps women whom I had met at lunch only hours before. Try reassuring your girlfriend, who lives over 7,000 miles away, that even though you were robbed, homeless, and temporarily shacking up with two women—that everything is actually fine, in fact, couldn’t be better. By the way, Solena, thank you for your resolve, support, understanding and confidence—you F’in Rock!

On Wednesday, when I arrived at work, I was ushered into the director’s office. As I entered the room, my host mother, my 19 year old host brother and my 5 year old host cousin all stood. We shot anxious glances and nervous smiles at each other, until finally I went to shake the little boy’s hand (the cousin) and watched him back away from me and nearly break out in tears. Then the translation began: he say he sorry, he saw key that your brother hid and go into room and take money; he say he take fifty dollar bill, and that all he take. This family will pay you back.

Now, in some ways, I actually felt good about this encounter. First off, I was starting to wonder whether in fact I had been robbed or if perhaps I merely miscalculated how much money I had (I know I had over $300 in an envelope in the book and when I checked it, there was only $130 remaining). This confirmed that I was not mistakenly shaming a family. However, a couple things bothered me. I don’t think that a five year old would logically think that he should leave money in the envelope to make it appear like nothing had happened. I also never saw this child away from adults for more than a brief moment. More importantly, where was the money now?—I mean, if a five year old came to you with over two months salary in his hands, wouldn’t you suspect that he probably didn’t earn this selling lemonade? Additionally, if the kid spent it himself—what did he buy?—$170 US of candy in Kyrgyzstan could literally buy you a dump truck full. Finally, if the family was claiming that the kid took $50, what happened to the other $120? Anyway, I tried to maintain a serious face throughout the ordeal, but I couldn’t help but smile at the 5 year old—whom I truly believe is the scapegoat for an older, though not more sophisticated, thief.

When the family left, vowing to pay me back in installments, my organization informed me that the family really wanted me to move back in with them. I explained that I didn’t think this was a good idea (Not to mention, Peace Corps was the one that demanded I move out immediately) and that I would live with the other volunteers until we figured out alternative housing. Fortunately, my organization agreed that moving back in with this family was not a good idea and they also agreed to find me new housing within a few days.

Today is Thursday, December 09, 2004 and I was told that they are looking for a single room apartment for me, close to work, but that they may not be able to find anything until Sunday. So, the search continues.

My Work:
yesterday, I edited a letter to the Deputy US Ambassador. I also declined an invitation to travel to Kiev, Ukraine (all expenses paid) to monitor the elections there. As a PC volunteer we are forbidden from participation in political activities. Today, I went to the Regional Library as the HRDC representative and evaluated children’s drawing of human right’s issues. I have no idea what is in store for me tomorrow.

Letter to Ren
The following letter is to one of my best friends, Loren (nicknamed Ren). Ren will be three years old in January, 2005.

Dear Loren,

I miss you! I saw an eagle flying the other day, it looked bigger than a car and I remembered the hawk family that lived close to your house. Do you remember the hawks flying through your back yard? I used to worry that they could pick you up and fly away with you—but you are far too big for those hawks now. Ren, where did you go for Thanksgiving? Are you excited about Santa Claus and Christmas?

I will be in Kyrgyzstan for Christmas. I am living in a city named Osh, in the southwestern part of the country. They have a big market here where they sell bread, pastas, spices, tomatoes, bananas, melons, apples, walnuts, beans, rice, and meats. The market is outside and in the winter it can be very cold, so before people go to the market, they dress up in warm clothes like sweaters, scarves, gloves or mittens and coats. The men wear tall white hats called Kalpoks

People from all over the world live in Osh, but most of them are from the countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Russia. Ren, do you remember where Kyrgyzstan is? If you look closely at the map, you will see that these other countries are not very far from Kyrgyzstan.

In Kyrgyzstan, very few people have cars. People walk, ride horses or ride in a small bus called a mashrutka (Ma shroot ka). Mashrutkas look like minivans, but have benches inside so people can sit down. If the mashrutka is very full, younger people stand up and offer their seats to grandpas and grandmas. It costs four Som (or 10 cents) to ride anywhere in Osh.

Ren, how is your little brother, Fisher? Are you teaching him about the world. Is he learning baby sign language? Do you remember the signs for “food” and “more”? I remember how excited and amazed I was when you started signing. Your Mom and Dad were very excited too.

Ren, have you been playing in the snow? Do you remember the snow fort that we built last spring in your front yard? How are your mom and dad doing? I miss them very much too. Please tell everyone (especially your grandparents) that I said hello. If you see Jen and John and Isaac and Nora, please say hello and “Happy Holidays” to them too. Take care, Ren.


Your Friend,

p.s.—ask your dad and mom to help you write me a letter or email and don’t forget to say “please.”


(written sometime in November)
My Meter Reader:

Resembling the head of a robotic dog (two porcelain spool shaped eyes jut out from the black square brow while a cylindrical snout protrudes below their steady gaze), this cubist-readymade hybrid mounted in the corner of my room, forever stares at the opposite wall where a textile rug hangs above my bed.

I would scarcely notice this Monstros-o-meter, were it not for the muffled ticks bellowing from deep within the beast. O.K., “ticks” and “bellowing” aren’t quite the right words—imagine inserting a floppy disk into a computer—you know the frantic sound your drive makes while it hopelessly searches for a file that you accidentally deleted?—now imagine you can’t shut off your computer or eject your disk…it’s the kind of sound that you imagine will never end…

The rat a tat tat of billions of bits of data streaming off endlessly into the ether…this is my room.

Each night, around 12:15 AM, the power in Ivanovka shuts down, the meter’s cogs stop chugging-off watts and smooth silence pours over me— filling my room, my lungs, my thoughts. I close my eyes…

It is said that God, after parceling out the land to all the peoples of the world, fell asleep only to be awakened by the Kyrgyz people, “Why have you forsaken us?”

God rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked at the Kyrgyz, “What do you mean?”

“We’ve been waiting a long time to receive our land but it seems you’ve already given all the land to everyone else.”

God sat up in bed looking a little disheveled and distraught, “I thought I covered everyone…”

“Well, we’ve been waiting…have we done something wrong? You’ve given all the land away and we were left with nothing.”

Now it just so happens that God had saved a beautiful sliver of land for himself—hoping to use it as a kind of summer retreat, hidden in the mountains.

Let’s see how the Kyrgyz situation was handled.

God looked around and then whispered, “It just so happens that I saved a little sliver of beautiful land for myself—please take this land for your people.”

And, so it is said (at least, by a Kyrgyz Taxi driver), that that is how the Kyrgyz got their land.

Now back to the Meter Reader:

At four AM, the power is restored and the noise, the interminable stream of electric chatter, begins anew. At four AM, the brave bulb dangling from my ceiling buzzes to life sending darkness scurrying into corners, beneath beds and under chairs.

At four AM, I, too, try to hide from the light and thrash under my duvet like a drowning man in the shallow end of a swimming pool. Inevitably I throw off my blanket, defeated by the guilt that all those rat a tat tats add up to some cold hard cash for my family. I get up, every morning at four AM and walk the 3 paces to my door (for it is a very small room) and turn off the light.

Fact: The city of Osh is 6478.94 from St. Paul, Minnesota. Note, this route is as the crow flies (over the north pole).