I've entitled this post 'Bread & Honey' because that's about all I've been able to eat for the last week. What seemed like an initiatory bout of gastro turned out to be an equally initiatory but much more horrid bout of giardia. Details would be gratuitous. Suffice to say - quite sick. Anyway, having found the right medicine, I'm back on my feet and life is back to what passes for normal. Except now, I both boil and filter my water and wash my hands incessantly. Also, now I never wear shoes in the house; the streets are - how shall I put this? - not clean. The custom is to wear felted slippers indoors, which I am adopting immejitly and t'onct.
Let me tell you, however, what I learned about this place through being sick.
First of all, if you could experience the way folks care for each other around here, it would knock your socks off. Many people called to sympathise and offer help, even people I haven't met yet; people brought groceries for me; people brought medication; someone even helped clean my house. And now that I'm well, I've received all manner of dinner invitations, an invitation to the ballet (which still exists thanks to Soviet influence) and an invitation to a retreat in the mountains this weekend, which I've gladly accepted and look forward to writing about. The expat community that I've fallen in with is close-knit and full of lovely people.
Secondly - nothing is easy in Bishkek, but it's triply so without good health. Getting anywhere requires the following: teetering on treacherous ice; negotiating a crowded (an adjective which doesn't get close to the reality of the experience) marshrutka; breathing in icy, smoggy air; communicating at cross-purposes in a still-strange language; and lots of smells and sights that are best avoided by anyone with delicate innards.
Third, the cuisine of Kyrgyzstan, consisting largely of plain bread, rice and pasta, is superbly suited to anyone with the aforementioned delicate innards.
And finally - in the words of the immortal six-fingered man - if you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything. He may have overstated it slightly, but the sentiment is sound.
Some miscellaneous information: I found a bank that issues American Dollars! This was the culmination of weeks of investigation. Let me give you some friendly advice; never, never travel casually in Central Asia without a Visa. Just before I left, my bank sent me a new card, and changed it from a Visa to a Mastercard. In most of the world, this wouldn't be an issue; in Kyrgyzstan, the only bank that will accept Mastercard is a Kazakh branch, and the only branch of that bank that issues US Dollars is, as I just discovered, five blocks away. And why do I need these elusive Dollars? It's a sensible question; the answer is, to pay my rent! The local currency, being the Som, is just too weak for large payments. (It's something like 6 dollars to 500 som.) I can't tell you what a life-changing discovery this was, which gives you some indication of the nature of my life at the moment.
I'm off to get a loaf of brown bread from the German bakery before it closes. (There are only two in town, and one is at the end of my street!) It's a good thing I like bread and honey, hein?