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Tim Forbes in Kyrgyzstan
Tim Forbes in Kyrgyzstan
Of Internet Access and Tales to Tell
Today is cold. The threat of snow is in the air. I talked with a member of the Peace Corps staff in Kazakstan yesterday who said she had to chip through a quarter inch of ice to get into her car this week. “And Kyrgyzstan is likely only a week or so behind us,” she added. So I am bracing myself for the coming winter.
There has been much to tell but little time to tell it. Peace Corps has kept me fairly busy and free time, such as that of last weekend, has been spent studying Russian and working or “guesting” with my host family. Guesting is just as it sounds, the act of being a guest at someone’s house, and we went guesting on both Friday and Saturday, visiting family members at their apartments in Bishkek.
When I have made it to the internet café, ready to shell out some som to pay for time to communicate with friends and family, the connection has been painfully slow and unreliable. Combine that with the corruption of a couple disks of mine that I’d used to pre-write material on my laptop and you can get a sense of the obstacles I’ve been faced with.
So after nearly two months in country, I am wanting to write about a great many more experiences than I have time for.
I have experienced crime in Kyrgyzstan. I had my digital camera pickpocketed on a minibus in early October. Four of us were coming back from a Peace Corps organized outing in Bishkek. We boarded an already extremely crowded minibus. Just when I was sure no one else could fit, four or five seemingly drunk guys got on, pushing and pulling their way into impossibly tight spaces. My arms were pinned to my chest in the scrum. By the time I could move them down to my front coat pocket where my camera was, it was gone.
I have experienced working with the police in Kyrgyzstan. The Peace Corps Security Director and my language teacher went with me to report the theft to a branch of the militsia, or Kyrgyz police. The small office we were led into could not have looked much different than when Khrushchev and the Soviets ruled here. Two old typewriters sat on each side of an otherwise barren desk. One detective, who looked as ancient and as fast as the typewriter, used two fingers to pluck away at some form in triplicate.
Two items broke the sterility of the room and seemed out of place in the austere space: a small family photo of his absent colleague and a calendar on the wall opposite the antique detective. The month of October displayed a beautiful photo of what I presumed was Moscow at night. It took me some time before I realized that the calendar was for 2001.
The whole process of reporting my loss took two and a half hours. Interestingly enough, this is the same amount of time it took my family to slaughter their cow. Efficiency in some activities is made up for through inefficiency in others, or vice versa depending on your perspective or mood. Without the expert help of Marat, our security specialist, I’m sure I would still be there today. He skillfully negotiated the whole process, warding off their attempt to change my story to say that I simply had lost my camera, dealing with the myriad of militsia members filing in and out of the office and even bringing his own paper for writing our statement to assist the woefully under-supplied antique detective. While I do not expect that my camera will be found, the step lets me file a claim with my insurance company and gave me a glimpse into the police.
I have experienced another area of Kyrgyzstan. The Peace Corps fanned out all of the trainees throughout the country on visits to current volunteers. I went with two other trainees to Kyssl-Suu, a village name meaning “red water” in Kyrgyz. It is located near Karakol on the eastern edge of Lake Issyk-kul in the northeast corner of the country. The drive there was outstanding with mountains rising up on all sides and the vast lake shimmering blue in the sun.
I have experienced besbarmak. We had it when staying with the host family of the trainee in Kyssl-Suu. The name means “five fingers” since it is to be eaten without silverware. It is made of sheep and is one of the few truly Krygyz dishes, the rest being borrowed from the Russians, Uzeks or Uighurs. We were greeted with the knowledge of what was on the menu that night when we arrived at the house and saw a bloated stomach with winding intestines sitting in a pot in the courtyard. On a trip to the outhouse, I saw the heart dangling from a nail on the wall of a livestock.
To say that besbarmak is made of sheep may be slightly misleading. In truth, it is not made of sheep but is the sheep, from stem to stern. Potatoes and tomatoes are served alongside but function more as garnish than meal. Customarily, there is an elaborate ritual involved in who eats what. For instance, eyes are shared by friends or colleagues to symbolize their looking out for one another. Much of this distributing of the various parts is to be done by the guest of honor, the oldest male visitor. I can only assume that this family saw in me an unreliable executor of their tradition and settled for distributing the sheep themselves in what became a bit of a free-for-all.
Parts were passed around. I had mostly tongue, a sample of intestine and some bits near the knee joint. My fellow volunteers did the same since those parts looked promisingly meat-like. The head was left almost entirely to the cute fourteen-year-old daughter who plunged the knife in with the vigor of Texas rancher diving into his steak. There is little that can compare to seeing her small, graceful hand wield a giant kitchen knife to pry open the skull and expose the brain to eat as we were encouraged to, “like a wolf”.
I have experienced the reception of an international leader. Kant, the larger village where we have our larger trainings, has an airbase that the Russians just rented the use of. As I have been told, it is the first time in history that the Russians and Americans have a military base in the same country. Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia, came to christen the facility two weeks ago. Thousands of Kyrgyz children and adults lined Lenin Avenue with flags waving as his motorcade wisked by. It passed under a large banner proclaiming “Russia and Kyrgyzstan are friends!” I caught a brief glimpse of him through his bulletproof glass as we waited in our minibus to head to our training for the day.
And so, with these experiences behind me, the coming week holds promise of a new chapter in my life here. Thursday the 13th brings news we have long awaited as we will learn where our permanent sites will be. The next day, we will meet a representative from our newly disclosed organization and join them for a five day visit to our new town somewhere in Kyrgyzstan before returning here to finish the last month of training. It will be good to know where the next two year will find us.