Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Friday, April 22, 2005

When a Samurai Shines My Shoes.

My freshman year of college I enrolled in an intro to philosophy class. Like most 101 classes, this was merely a survey course—nothing more than a stone skipped across the surface of 2500 years of Western thought. I have long since forgotten the Pythagoreans and Atomists, Epicureans and Neoplatonists. My memory has said goodbye to Goethe, sayonara to Shopenhauer, dos-vee-danya to Descartes and ciao to Cicero.

Though my slacking brain deleted most of the data from that Philo 101 file cabinet—I still remember one article I read about moral relativism. The article, "Trying Out One's New Sword” was written by an ethicist named Mary Midgley. Midgley argued against absolute cultural relativism and proffered the example of an old Japanese tradition whereby a Samurai would test his newly forged sword by bisecting the first wayfarer who crossed his path after leaving the sword smith’s. Midgley’s essay basically convinced me that I had a moral obligation to speak out about practices that I find offensive to the senses and morally reprehensible. This is not to say that one should willy-nilly decry a cultural practice, ritual or tradition without first trying to understand and contextualize what’s taking place. However, I believe it’s OK to say that female genital mutilation is wrong, stoning a woman to death for cavorting with a lover is wrong and in Midgley’s essay, slicing a man in two in order to determine the sharpness of a blade, is wrong.

Admittedly, the above examples are extremes. And like most extremes, beyond them, lies a grayer, soupier area where the moral brooding bubbles and boils. So, what are the moral toils and troubles in Kyrgyzstan? Beyond the corruption, bride kidnapping and alcoholism—what do I find morally reprehensible?

Shiny shoes. Yeah, that’s right—I said it. Shiny shoes. Go ahead, laugh—but, obviously you’ve never been discriminated against based on the polish and sheen of your kickers (and don’t call them that if you come here). You don’t know what it’s like to have total strangers snicker at your scuffs, guffaw at your galoshes or laugh at your loafers. They talk about your tongues, reel about your heels and sob over your soles.

Entire lives are bookended by shoes. Boys as young as five, sit on upturned crates buffing their youth away on a stretch of road I call Shoe Shine Street. Shantytown shoe sheds with crenulated roofs rust in the shadowy corners of courtyards. These little shops harbor old, white bearded men whose hand painted signs declare them “Shoe Masters”. Wizards of leather, these men work their magic by resurrecting soles long thought dead.

When I walk down Shoe Shine Street, I can’t help but notice how the Shiners stop what they’re doing to drool over my dusty boots. Their eyes follow my footwear like binoculared little generals watching a battle unfold from a far. So entrenched in my boots’ potential for polished glory, the younger ones are never fast enough to take me prisoner. The bolder, brasher and braver teenagers order me to sit, “Meester, sit! Please meester, sit! Sit!” I march on and kick the dust, defiant and unashamed that I don such dull, smudged leather.

In Kyrgyzstan, you can arrive two hours late to a meeting about Development Planning and nobody will bat an eye, but you’ll be the talk of the town if you show up on time sporting a pair of un-shined round-toes. One woman, when asked what she looked for in the ideal husband, responded, “Clean shoes… I want a husband with clean shoes.”

Now I know that one might find a deeper philosophical, sociopolitical or anthropological meaning attached to her response. Defenders of the Samurai’s “new sword” practice justified the homicide of an innocent by contextualizing the tradition and explaining that it was actually a high honor to be cut in two by the warrior class. Defenders of female circumcision posit similar arguments about this painful practice.

Having said all that, I am here to tell you that worrying about shiny shoes is wrong. Worry about the trash piles that children play in, worry about showing up on time for a meeting, worry about how corrupt the educational system and government has become, worry about the rivers that carry away human waste, worry about the skilled workers who emigrate from the country…

After worrying about all of these things, if you still have time, please, feel free to polish your shoes…but don’t judge your friends or neighbors on the sheen of their wingtips. As for me, I’m going to keep wearing my dusty boots until a Samurai offers to shine my shoes.

Solefully yours,

Larry Tweed

Friday, April 15, 2005

Waterfalls, Planes and Naked Soccer: Sometimes It's better to know Russian before Speaking English.

When I was in Thailand in 1994, one component of my studies consisted of an intensive Thai language course. Thai, is a tonal language and one word can have up to 5 different meanings (depending on intonation). Aside from addressing my host mother as “dog” rather than “mom,” I recall two other instances where friends intoned tales other than those intended.

During one class, the normally Napoleonic instructor coiled over in hysterics. She had asked my friend Andrew what his favorite hobby was. Andrew, one of the better speakers in our group, wanted to show off his new vocabulary and carefully constructed a sentence believing he was saying, “I like to play in waterfalls.”

What he really said was, “I like to play with falling breasts.”

In a similar vein, my friend Erin was asked by her instructor, “how did you get to Thailand?”

She wanted to say, “I rode here in an airplane.”

Instead, she replied, “I rode on a flying penis.”

Today, I added to this list of linguistic bloopers. Discussing summer activities with a female co-worker, we began talking about soccer.

Please note: like most conversations around my office, this was a hybrid of English/Russian.

Nigora (pronounced Nee-gor-ah) said, “When everyone in our office goes on a trip into the country, we like to go swimming and play football (soccer).

I winced, “Oh, I am awful at football.”

“Yes, me too—they make me stand in the rectangle and hit the ball away.”

“You’re goalie.” I said, supplying the most obvious answer.

Nigora’s face turned bright red, “LARRY!”

Caught off guard, I repeated myself believing she must have misheard me, “You’re goalie. GOALIE.”

Still blushing, Nigora managed to say, “Larry, do you know what you are saying?” and reached for the Russian English dictionary on my desk.

As she flipped through the pages, I held my breath in anticipation...

A homonym, “голый” (pronounced just like our “goalie”) means:
1) naked, nude; bare - голая голова 2) ( без примеси ) unmixed, sheer, pure, neat - голый спирт 3) ; bare, pure, unadorned.

So, I was saying, “You’re naked. NUDE!” And not, “You’re goalie. GOALIE.”

In closing, I beckon my friends to come to Kyrgyzstan—where the vodka’s cheap, the revolutions are fast, and the goalies are nude.

Still laughing,

Larry Tweed

Lenin and the square on Nurooz. The day protestors took over the administration building in Osh.

Statute in background is Lenin. This is the largest Lenin statue in Kyrgyzstan and incidentally the meeting place for the protestors who later stormed Osh's main adminstration building which lies directly infront of Lenin. Note: the crowd came from the direction which Lenin's hand points.

March 20th: Bandstand set-up in the shape of a yurt, celebrating Nurooz (often called the Muslim New Year).

Kyrgyz women in traditional dress preparing to celebrate Nurooz. The next day, protestors stormed the Administration buildings of Osh.

Young shephard tending sheep on a small mountain around Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Avalanche: As you can see, the packed snow covering the road was nearly 12 feet tall. Notice the blowing snow on the left--this was made by an enormous tractor which chews it up, spitting it into the air. For those of you living in Colorado--you know all about this. Read about your storm online today.

Avalanche: cars line up waiting for the road to be cleared of snow.

Avalanche (April 7, 2004): Clearing the road between Bishkek and Osh.

Avalanches, Concept Papers--life is busy.

Ever pack 6 bodies into a four seater for a 14 hour ride over some of the world's highest and most treacherous mountains? Ahh, well you're smarter than me. I went to Bishkek via taxi on Thursday to represent the Osh Oblast volunteers' in the bi-annual VAC (Volunteer Action Committee) meeting. I entered the cab at 7:00 AM and arrived in Bishkek at 9:30PM. Highlights of the ride: waiting for an avalanche to be cleared from the road; exiting the car to push it up and over slick icy patches; having a 250 pound Kyrgyz man recline directly onto my knees--Ouch! As exciting as the trip up to Bishkek was, the flight home (Peace Corps paid for the flight back, ostensibly for safety reasons) was less eventful and ummmm...less painful. While a Russian Yak-40 may not boast the same safety record as Boeing or Airbus, it sure beat the knee-breaking, nail-biting ride up north.

Works been busy. My organization is currently hoping to make it to the second tier of a USAID application process (which, if realized) would allow HRDC's legal clinic to continue providing free legal aid to Southern Kyrgyzstan's indigent population. Currently, our 4 legal clinics are funded by a branch of OSCE, however, that funding is scheduled to expire in June.

Other news: over the last few weeks several volunteers from Jalalabad Oblast have been medically separated or have made the difficult choice to ET (Early Terminate). I had the honor of meeting and getting to know most of these volunteers. They will be missed greatly by their K12 compatriots. Good luck and please don’t forget about us over here.

New elections seem to have been postponed until July 10th, 2005.

That’s the news.

Take care,

Larry Tweed