Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Dog on the Stairwell

You'd think he was lazy, lying there all black-furred and warm, his fawn-coloured face faded after many seasons of snow and sun. He blinks slowly at the ascending and descending apartment-dwellers, and shifts anxiously when they get too close, though he is rarely anxious enough to move altogether. A long time ago, someone cared enough to lay down a rag as a bed and claim this corner office for him, and the dog rests his head on his languid paws as he relives that moment of kindness, a hundred times a day. A sliver of Spring sunlight illuminates the filthy tiles of the landing and the grease in his coat.

You'd think he was lazy, but then you notice that he eats more bread crusts than meat, and you realise that he's sleepy with starvation and sadness. 

What to do? You could buy meat and feed him every day, thereby making of him a devoted servant and your dog by default. But meat is expensive and you can't have a dog. He's not your responsibility. You don't know whose responsibility he is, but he's not yours. Think of all the repercussions! He's probably full of fleas and deathly illness. And there's thousands like him. Far better to wait for the dogcatchers to shoot him - best for everyone, really.

Oh, these dogs. I saw a yellow family of mixed-up labradors last week, two adults and four puppies, gambolling in the gutter. These dogs will break your heart if you let them. I have a ritual response now: I pray. I ask God to let their suffering be mild, and their lives short, for they must surely break His heart as well as mine.

Ak Emir Bazaar

Of all the bazaars in Bishkek, I like Ak Emir the best. It's only a twenty minute walk from my apartment, which is nice, but that's not why. I like it because it's small, it's not muddy, and the sellers take pride in their displays, constructing pyramids of oranges, apples, eggplants, potatoes and garlic and guarding them with care. I like the pancake seller and the Korean salad stands and the little smoked meat stalls. The produce is generally good quality, but you have to watch carefully, or even be assertive and choose it yourself, else the sellers will deftly switch it for something bruised or second-rate that they keep behind the stacks for just such an occasion as a silly foreigner. That's to be expected, so you keep a careful eye on them and act sure of yourself, and they won't pull tricks. The idea of developing a repeat customer base has never occurred to most market sellers, but I get the sense that these ones, who are beginning to recognise me, might not be averse to the idea.

I also like Ak Emir because many of the vendors, particularly the young ones, understand English, even if they don't speak it. However, I'm determined that the next time I go I'll speak only Russian, and not rely on gestures either. I tried this morning, but fell into English at the first difficulty. I promptly forget my rehearsed lines under pressure. However, I did end up with a kilo of decent-looking oranges, half a pumpkin, some sad-but-there's-life-in-it coriander, a jar of nice honey, shiny eggplant and, amazingly, a plastic container of chickpeas. This has the makings of a delicious dinner, so long as I can get my oven to roast my vegetables, rather than turn them to charcoal. It would appear that with the passing of Winter, I can actually choose the produce that appeals to me, rather than relying on potatoes and carrots and apples. This is extremely exciting. So, too, was the discovery of porridge oats (sadly, Em, no spurtles).

I don't often do this, because wearing white iPod plugs in your ears is a blatant advertisement that you're a) foreign and b) comparatively well-off, but I did listen to music as I walked today. Jon Foreman's four seasonal albums are rapidly becoming the soundtrack to my break. His music is beautiful through and through, and I love to wake up to it, walk around to it, do the dishes to it, go to sleep with it. If you're looking for some new music, and you like simple, wistful, beautiful folk songs, I can recommend these four albums which are named after the seasons. They're listed inexpensively on iTunes and they'll enrich your Sunday mornings or your evenings or whatever time it is that you listen to music.

Having packed all my groceries away, I'm going to wander in the sunshine for a bit, maybe take a detour to school to see if any packages have arrived for me. It's my birthday soon, and several people have indicated in less than subtle terms that I should expect mail in various sizes. I'll try to maintain a casual demeanor to the guards as I stroll through the gates, but really, I'm desperately interested in the mail that may or may not be on my desk.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nooruz 2011 - Spring has Sprung!


That's the sound made by a weary soul falling headfirst into the pillowy goodness of Spring Break.
Here is a grand statue of Lenin gesticulating wildly, while I do my level best to look worker-like.
Oh, how badly I need this holiday! I left Australia in December five days after school ended, rushed around Europe in the most madcap way, touched down in Bishkek with all guns blazing, and haven't subsequently stopped until today, midway through March - upon which, the aforementioned soul (and body) understood that it had permission to relax, and did so with gusto.

It's Nooruz today, or Persian New Year. This holiday is banned by many Islamic regimes because of its links with Zoroastrianism, but Central Asia is a law unto itself, and it does love a good festival. I met with my friend A and we walked to Ala-Too Square, which is the centre of civic activity (public holidays, bloody uprisings and the like) in Bishkek. There were throngs of people; the men dressed resolutely in black jackets and their traditional, elongated felt hats, the women colourful and the children all michelin-like and immobile in their puffy jackets and hats. (There seems to be an unspoken rule that unless one is dressed for arctic conditions until April, one will catch his death of cold; I have often been stared at for not wearing a hat on a perfectly mild day).

Apart from the crowds, the first obvious signs of festivity were the numerous stalls decked in flowers, many of them equipped with birds and rabbits. The idea is that this is all very Spring-like, and you can get your photo taken with the roses and the bunnies and show people back home in the country the photo of your Day Out in the City. Thinking about it now, I very much wish we'd decided to get our photos taken. But we would have been baulked at - these odd westerners without hats! Most decidedly, this wasn't a touristy festival.

Here is a yurt. And that's really all I have to say about that.
The next indication of unnatural jollity was the music. You could hear it blocks away, and for hours there were performers on stage; all manner of dancing, singing, competitions. Colourful Kyrgyz dances, Russian troupes, local pop stars, even some classical piano. We clapped loudly, but no one else did, and it quickly became clear that this isn't a cultural norm - you don't clap hands to show appreciation, you just stand there and look expectantly for the next act.

Photo booth, complete with paper flowers and cute bunny. There were also stalls with parrots, doves and squirrels; dibs on the bunny rabbit.

We wandered around the palatial compound of administrative buildings where everything was taking place - all looking considerably less dour than usual under a blue sky - through a park filled with fair rides, and towards an extremely pleasant coffee shop, where we sat for a long time and drank coffee and talked of cabbages and kings. Eventually, we paid our bill and wandered back to the festivities and bought some plov (national rice dish made with mutton and carrots - very oily, but very good!) and bread, having decided that the shashlik looked delicious but dripped too much with fat. A pleasant picnic ensued, and we realised that we'd spent nearly five hours feeling completely relaxed, a circumstance worthy of note. I hope to emulate this feat tomorrow, and the day after that, and possibly all the days remaining in this short, sweet holiday.
Tian Shan mountain range in Spring - glorious!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Theme Song & a Prayer

In the Woodshed: A Theme Song & a Prayer: "I watch CNN some evenings. It's the only English language channel and I like the feeling of being connected to the rest of the world in my o..."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Such a Day

Osh Bazaar is the ultimate Bishkek experience; a disorienting crush of buyers and sellers spread over several acres of ancient cobblestones. All marshrutka routes lead to Osh Bazaar. It's the cheapest place by far to buy anything, from lightbulbs to vegetables to jeans, but this experience is only for the stout of heart (and shoe) and you want to be armed with determination and a decent sense of direction before plunging into the melee.

From my second-floor window this morning, the overnight snowfall appeared to have had a beautifying effect - a feathery layer of white over everything. On stepping out the front door to meet my friend V for an Osh excursion, though, it quickly became apparent that this was the very worst kind of snow, thick and slushy and akin to wading through a shallow river. Along the way I had to dodge wet clumps of snow falling periodically from tree branches, and the even bigger avalanches from rooftops. I arrived at V's house with a fine layer of ice over my hood and a tidal mark on my boots.

We stepped off the marshrutka and into the muddy slush of the bazaar, Shortly thereafter, battling our way through a crowded pathway pitted with puddles, we were greeted by the sight of several enormous pieces of tripe wobbling on a hand-drawn trolley up a small hill, which is the regular way of transporting meat in these parts. With one accord, we decided to walk the other way and buy some tushuks and gifts, which were relatively straightforward transactions. Things only started to get unhinged when we wandered through the clothing stalls and V decided to try on a skirt. This particular stall had a sheet set up in a corner for the trying on of such garments, which was more than most stalls offered. V went behind the sheet, tried the skirt, and found it was too small; I went to find a bigger size; having found it, the seller accompanied me behind the changing sheet, along with her assistant, someone's elderly mother, an interested bystander, and the bystander's friend. Poor V stood there in her too-small skirt surrounded by five helpful Kyrgyz women and a floral sheet, while I held up a mirror for her and quietly dissolved into giggles that wouldn't stop. Somehow, V got changed back and we managed to extract ourselves from the experience unscathed.  

We decided then to buy some food to cook lunch, rather than buy the ubiquitous samsi, a decision which was possibly influenced by our earlier encounter with tripe. So, we entered the expanse of fruit and vegetable stalls, covered over with tarpaulins that dripped steadily with melting snow. We decided on some oyster mushrooms and tofu. V's Russian is good enough to buy food with, and the seller we chose was friendly and asked us about Australia; but things went awry quickly when we realised that she'd misinterpreted our request for 300 grams of mushrooms, and was busy filling a shopping bag with 300 som worth. V's increasingly frantic attempts to rescue the situation were met only with helpless giggles from me (still breathless from the hilarity of the skirt episode) and a rising ire from the mushroom seller, who eventually understood and unpacked the bag with muttered profanities about stupid Australians. Needless to say, we skipped out of there as soon as possible, took one of the world's more ridiculously crowded marshrutkas - at one point, the armpits of six individuals were mere inches from my face - and had a perfectly nice lunch back at the apartment.

Bishkek may be a grim place at times, but I relish the unpredictability and the humour and the adventure of it. Spring is showing her face in fits and starts and in a couple of weeks the streets will be green and beautiful. The roses will be out - and Bishkek was the premier city for flowers in the Soviet Union, which is really something given the Russian program for city beautification - and the city will be transformed. Except, of course, for Osh Bazaar, which will remain chaotic and colourful and as disorienting as ever. Which is just as it should be.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Brothers & Sisters

My small group met last night, as we do fortnightly, to eat together, pray together, and be encouraged by the study of God's Word. I am particularly struck by the servant hearts and compassionate outlooks of everyone in my group. There's three older Scottish folk, all of whom have been here for years: one woman runs a shelter for the homeless, tending frostbite and doling out soup and somehow scraping together enough money for cheap shoes that the homeless people don't have to be barefooted in three inches of snow; another woman teaches primary school and is involved in a couple of projects with locals; and there's the fellow who gave up a fine career on his national education board to head up the tiny secondary school where I teach. So those are the Scots for you, a hardy good-natured bunch. Then there's a Dutch couple, who are moving to the unstable south of the country soon with their two young children, to start up a business and train local people. As with so many Europeans, they speak beautiful English (apologetically, as though somehow they're about to get it wrong) and have been taking an intensive course in Kyrgyz language. There's a German couple, experts in local language and culture; there's a young American fellow, working in a school for disabled children; and there's my Australian friend who teaches with me. A motley crew with myriad differences, and yet everybody loves and serves each other selflessly. For instance, the woman who runs the homeless shelter had quite a week: in the space of five days she broke her wrist on the ice, got quite sick, lost her purse, negotiated a tricky workplace issue; and yet she was laughing and praising God with genuine gladness, and members of the group have been helping her this week with groceries and money and practical things, as they helped me when I was sick. And I haven't even mentioned my colleagues or the friends I've been making through different avenues, all of whom are similarly faithful, gracious folk.

Such is the community in which I find myself, and how can I help but praise God for the beauty of character and steadfastness of spirit that he brings about in his people? How else could such a motley, diverse group of people find common ground and genuine fellowship? I'm reminded that it's God who works within us to will and to act according to his good purpose, who transforms and renews us daily; only then can we love each other properly.