Sunday, February 27, 2011

Small Pleasures

Today was what shall henceforth be referred to as a nose-hair-freezing day; three layers of clothing and a couple of hot coffees did nothing to dispel the chill in my bones. After a busy morning hithering and thithering - finding a new kettle that doesn't imbue the water with heavy metals; buying vegetables and bread from a far-away bazaar; a long trek across town to find a rumoured Italian coffee place that ended up selling nothing more than weird Russian tiramisu and horrid grainy espresso - I was glad to spend the afternoon tucked up on the couch under a quilt (sent by a friend who made it out of old jumpers - it's quite something, and so cosy), alternately listening to good music, researching cheap travel options for summer, and knitting up a storm. Yesterday, a couple of students showed me the way to a wool store, where I was very excited to discover glittery knitting needles that looked more like twirling batons than anything, and whole skeins of yarn in not entirely loathsome colours. Half a scarf has ensued.

Oh, I also bought some tealight candles; the packaging had a picture of an apple on the front, so I assumed that they were going to smell appropriately apple-ish, only it turns out that they emit a faintly chemical odour for about an hour before turning to mush. Still, they provided a warming glow while they lasted, which, in combination with my blanket and my knitting, was a perfectly pleasing circumstance.

It's been a day of small pleasures, really. I even got a seat on a marshrutka, which is a marvel above other marvels (with the possible exemption of finding good coffee in antiquated ex-Soviet cities). Yesterday's snowfall was so thick that it was still very pretty today. It fell in feathery pieces from tree branches as I walked under them; I have an antipodean fascination with snow in all its aspects, including the way snowflakes taste, the satisfying crunch of it under boots, and how to fashion it into snowballs that can be used to pay back certain students who barrage unsuspecting teachers in the schoolyard.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Tapestries

I confess, it was easier to trust in God's providence when I wasn't on a plane flying right at it - when I wasn't walking smoky icy streets in the midst of it.

Kyrgyzstan, and indeed much of Central Asia, is notable for its embroideries and tapestries. On the left, a hanging that was in my room at Ashu. The overall effect was beautiful - so colourful, well-ordered and natural. Up close, however, the handiwork was quite flawed: stray threads, coarse stitches, stained and dirty. It had clearly been utilised for practical purposes in the past - a bed or table covering, perhaps. If I were to focus on the small mistakes in the broad tapestry, I believe I wouldn't enjoy looking at it half so much. I wouldn't get a sense of the intent of the woman who made it, or an understanding of its practical purpose, or the feel of mellow mountain fruitfulness that pervades the whole.

Right now, I am staring intently at the inexpert, grubby stitches of which my last few weeks have been composed; a childish needle has woven doubt, insecurity and selfishness into the cloth. Where there ought to be a pattern of prayer and reflection, there is instead a crazy patchwork of half-finished tasks and unforeseen difficulties and unconfessed sins. Surely God called me to Bishkek - so where's the order or beauty in being here? I'd like to see it right now, please - I'd like to see the person whose life will be changed because I'm here, or the saintly improvements in my character.

It's a worn metaphor - life as a tapestry - but on this occasion at least, I like it. I like the imagery of God as a master potter, a master weaver. Yes, a minute inspection of the threads will reveal flaws in unflattering relief, but it's a mistake to think that those flaws are fatal. My human (feminine?) tendency is to magnify and inspect the flaws to the exclusion of everything else and get bogged down in the hopelessness of fixing them. And yet, I trust that a holistic view of this tapestry will reveal a life rooted and firmly planted in the promises of God, and that the whole will cohere in a way that reflects the inexpressible perfection of His plan. Not only will it cohere, but it will weave in and out with other lives in a way that complements both theirs and mine.

In the time-honour'd manner of spilling one's guts, I ought to add in the course of writing I feel that perspective - bright hope - has been restored to me. The object of that hope is constant, unfading, glorious; I may be inconstant, but He is never. And He has plans for me - plans for a hope and a future. So, I pack away my magnifying glass; I fold my hands and compose my heart and pray again with thanksgiving. 

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fulness of joy. Ps 16:11

Friday, February 18, 2011

Josh, CJ, Toby, Sam & POTUS come to Bishkek

So they make halva here, and it's delicious. I've always thought of it as a Middle Eastern specialty, or more recently a Baltic one; but here it is, sitting in great hunks in the bazaars, just begging to be eaten for breakfast (which is a peculiarity that I discovered in Greece). I mention the fact because it's Friday night and I just ate a large piece of the stuff, as a reward for a Very Long Day - which involved, among other things, grading papers, a rock climbing excursion and musical rehearsal - and also a Very Long Week.

A contributing factor to the Very Long Week: my purse was either lost or stolen on Tuesday night. I'm not going to speculate about which it was - either way, I was careless and it's embarrassing, not to mention dreadfully inconvenient. I want to kick things extremely. It took an hour to cancel my credit card on Wednesday morning, and another hour to arrange for a new one to be sent, which will take about a month. Also, there were about 3500 som in there and US$100, which altogether is a significant amount of money. Thus, I rely once again on the goodwill of the people around me, who have lent substantial sums of cash to tide me over. Thankfully, my rent and most bills are paid up for the next month, and I didn't have any other significant cards or documents in there, so it could be worse.

A mitigating factor in the Very Long Week. I met someone who owns all seven series of The West Wing. This is life-altering knowledge. I already got my hands on Series One, and even though I almost know whole chunks verbatim, I still watch with bated breath. I also borrowed The Black Swan (in Russian) and all of Fawlty Towers. Now, if only someone could send me all of this year's Oscar nominated films...although, to be honest, I can probably buy dubbed copies on the street for a couple of dollars. (It's frightfully annoying that Russians don't put subtitles on English-language films; they just speak over them, badly).

Speaking of The West must be time for a cup of tea and more halva...

Sunday, February 13, 2011


This was my first excursion into the countryside; two hours out of Bishkek, in the middle of a tiny rural village in a glorious valley, sits a guesthouse called Ashu. As you look at the following photos, bear in mind that 60% of Kyrgyz people live below the poverty line, and that survival in this place depends almost entirely on horses, donkeys, sheep and goats. It's an unimaginably hard life here in winter, and yet the people smiled and welcomed us and wanted to have conversations about Australia's floods, the news of which has made it even here - where, if there be no dragons, there is at least the odd television satellite.

There was never a more beautiful backdrop to a more poverty-stricken village.

These sheep had spent the day in the mountains with a shepherd, and now trotted along this street without him; they peeled off a couple at a time and found their pens themselves.

Kyrgyz children have broad smiles and sweet dispositions, but they rarely smile for a photo; these two just about split their cheeks with grins before and after this picture!

She smiled, though. These sleds are the main plaything of all the children, and act as a sort of pram for babies too.

Obligatory shot. Partially frozen river in the background.

Ashu guesthouse - notable for a good feed! Three bountiful meals a day, plus morning and afternoon tea. An example: this morning, homemade yoghurt, jam, bread and pancakes, and an omelette to boot, with oodles of tea. This fire is perpetually burning, and that matchbox is the size of anyone's head.

Cheerful fellow on a donkey; we passed him an hour later, his donkey pulling a cart laden with firewood.

A Soviet remnant - something about children and the rising sun -

Every village that we passed through had a mosque like this one; new, and seemingly unused. Somewhat mysterious.

Boy fetching water - he was happier than he looks here!

Jolly Kyrgyz farmer with his jolly lambs. They gambolled, I tell you, gambolled! (Though why there are lambs in winter is beyond me).

A little taste of Achu. (Bless you!)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bread & Honey

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?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Especially for Corey...

 ....because he wanted photos. I didn't take these; a talented photography student called James did. On Friday, the school held a Kyrgyz Day, which involved a trip to the National Museum, a traditional Kyrgyz meal, and Kyrgyz dancing and wrestling demonstrations. It was a fascinating day for me, as a know-nothing. When we were having a break at the museum, we happened to see the changing of the guard, an incredibly formalised and antique process. The photos below give you an idea of it. Note the phenomenal mountains in the background - that's the south of the city. On the far side of the road is Ala-too Square, which is a grandiose monument to town planning and where many political events take place.

Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String...

...these are undoubtedly a few of my favourite things. But this is Bishkek, so picking up a parcel takes on shades of a Kafka-esque ritual.

Still suffering from gastro, but bored and tired of watching the repetitive news cycle on CNN International, and needing to get out of the flat, I decide to walk to school to see what I've missed.

A receipt has appeared in my school pigeonhole; I show it to the kind-hearted Russian-speaking accountant, who interprets it to mean that there's a parcel waiting for me at the main post office in the heart of the city. (Previously, parcels have arrived directly to the school, but ours is not to question why.) She advises me to take money and my passport and pretty much any other official document I can find. This I do, although I exercise common sense (dangerously, considering that this is Bishkek) and decide that my university diploma probably won't be called for.

I set off to walk the five blocks to the post office, guided by the giant clock tower that marks the spot. About a block in, I begin to realise my folly. I really am sick; the smell of the roadside samsas is doing frightening things to my stomach. That's ok; I'll just walk really slow - this is fine. But then a group of black-jacketed Kyrgyz men walk by and one of them spits a big gob mere centimetres from my feet, and I begin to gag in earnest. I walk the next four blocks trying desperately not to vomit. Yes, I should have turned back, but I wasn't terribly logical at that stage, and I was pretty set on my parcel, having a fair idea of what was in it.

I found the post office easily enough; followed a labyrinth of Russian signs with some intuition, and eventually arrived in a dim, grimy room with a barred window. "Excuse me?" I said tentatively, craning my neck around the window. A small unsmiling girl came and took the receipt I proffered at her. She demanded my passport; scrutinised it furiously for some minutes; gave me a form to fill in, which I did haphazardly, not knowing exactly what it asked for, but figuring that no one would really know the difference. Having done this, she disappeared into the depths of a room which looked like nothing so much as the aftermath of an earthquake, and emerged with an enormous sack. My little parcel swam at the bottom of it. She unswathed it for me, and demanded, with a pair of scissors, that I open it in front of her. At this point, I realised that she was in fact looking out for my best interests; she wanted me to compare the contents to the customs sticker. So I did; and once satisfied that nothing had been tampered with, she taped the package back up and gave me another form to sign, to indicate that I was duly satisfied. I added a smily face to my signature - something I never do, but the whole thing was so grim that I wanted to cheer her up somehow.

I lugged my three kilo parcel back home, and when I tell you what was in it, you'll understand why I risked my health to get it:

Item #1: two pristine teatowels. These are impossible to find here. I never realised the worth of a teatowel until I was without one.
Item #2: two packets of Carmen's muesli bars. My favourites. Healthy muesli bars don't exist here.
Item #3: three bars of chocolate; two Cadbury, one Lindt.
Item #4: a little red teapot, a beautiful thing! Also, a matching teaspoon.
Item #5: a little coffee plunger!
Item #6: two packets of Twinings tea and one packet of Lavazza coffee. The commonplace has become luxurious.
Item #7: Multivitamins.

Yes, the risk was justifiable. I have a kind and generous mutti!

I have to crawl back into bed now; that was my adventure for the day. There are lots of REAL adventures planned over the weekend, so I very much hope that I and all my innards will be returned to health in time.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Anderson Cooper's Hair & Other Luxuries

After three weeks, my mind has sussed out Survival; it has a map of resources and connections and patterns and purposes, and a schedule to keep. Having accomplished this feat, it's now given my body permission to Get Spectacularly Sick.

To be precise, I ate something I shouldn't have - who knows what - and contracted gastro, so I've been in bed for three days. I'm told it's inevitable and to be expected, so I'm glad to have met expectations. I'm also glad for the enforced rest. I don't believe I'd have got it any other way! And I have books and my laptop, so things aren't dire.

At least, they wouldn't be dire if it weren't for the demon child directly upstairs. He spends his evenings alternately running and sliding across the floor, right above my bedroom. This pursuit entertains him for hours on end, until his parents lock him in his room (also right above my bedroom) whereupon he proceeds to drum his heels and scream until they let him out, after which the whole scenario plays out again. When I was sickest, all feverish and longing desperately for sleep, this is exactly what was happening above me. I did vaguely consider ascending the stairs to confront the parents, but decided against this on several counts; I could barely stand upright at the time, couldn't afford to be further than a room away from a toilet, and also could only say spasiba (thankyou) in varying levels of intensity, which I didn't feel would convey my displeasure sufficiently.

Anyway, today is a little better. I've been reading a couple of things; N.T. Wright's commentary on Matthew, and a kooky detective novel from the golden age of detective novels, by Michael Innes. I've also discovered a channel I can watch - CNN International, so I've been somewhat absorbed in events in Egypt, and increasingly mesmerised by Anderson Cooper's haircut. Also, I find my stomach can handle the Russian version of Lipton iced tea and copious amounts of toast, which is pleasant.

Things that were small, almost indistinguishable pleasures in Melbourne take on the larger pleasure of luxuries in Bishkek; television news in a language I understand, a toaster that actually works, an internet connection that's only moderately slow, and a small but close-knit group of people who have spread the news that I'm sick and have each offered to go out of their way to help. I received five phone calls today from people offering to bring me anything I needed, which was a beautiful reminder of God's provision and the unity of his people here; by their works you shall know them.