I'm sitting in a high room with a misty mountain view, drinking homegrown herbal tea from a clay teapot and listening to the crackle of a wood fire and the sound of conversation in German. There are a group of formidably Teutonic women at the next table, clad in hardy hiking gear and sensible haircuts. They are the only kind of tourists that make it this far; they, and the rowdy Peace Corps folk. I might try and talk to them later. But whether it's out of pride or otherwise, I don't think of myself as a tourist. I'm a resident, a worker: I belong here, even if it's for a finite time.
I've brought M and D here as a treat. I even took a couple of days off work, which is troubling me - I'm trying to reconcile myself to being here and not there, even though here is so extremely beautiful and peaceful - a simple, good life - and there is a place where tasks are piled on tasks and there's always another thing that needs doing. Anyway, it was an interesting marshrutka ride out here. Marshrutkas bound for this village leave every hour, on the hour, from the eastern bus station. We were aiming for the 10 o'clock, but I was so tired that we caught the 11 o'clock instead. And that was a providential business: a couple of blocks from the station, we passed a road accident where a marshrutka had rolled over. It turned out to be the 10 o'clock one, which we'd so nearly caught. We rode in thoughtful silence for a time. And then, at Tokmok, the marshrutka was crammed jowl to jowl with people who coughed in a suspiciously tubercular fashion. Still, the trees around here are succumbing to autumn, all piecemeal, with yellow and red foliage breaking through the greenery, and it was a rather lovely journey in all.
This is a guesthouse in the village of Kalmak-Ashu, which is located in a spectacular valley about two hours out of Bishkek. My parents have been walking around in wonder and taking pictures of the village children, donkeys and mountainous landscapes. As I said, I've been trying my best to relax by reading and ingesting the aforementioned tea, with only moderate success thus far. I have high hopes for tomorrow, however. I've arranged for a local guide to take us all horseriding through the mountains, and the kind Kyrgyz woman in the kitchen will pack us lunch. The weather promises to be fine.
The high school retreat in mountains was magnificent. I can feel an avalanche of superlatives coming on, so I'll simply say that God was very good to us and that my colleagues - and our students - are spectacular human beings. I love them dearly.
(The parentals enjoyed it too, despite being a bit sick and shell-shocked. D spoke, M cooked, so they were on familiar territory).
School is very busy indeed, and the marking load is almost intolerably immense. But I shall overcome.
I'm letting M and D loose on the city by themselves, tomorrow. They have a list of words, an old phone, and a map in Russian. The day after that, I'm sending them off for a trek in the mountains while I keep teaching. Then, I'm taking a couple of days off so that we can go stay at a guesthouse in a village, which should be perfectly lovely.
I've been looking at my calendar today; it appears that I have no free time for the next seven months, apart from the occasional national holiday. I'm hugely excited at the prospect of everything that lies ahead.
This afternoon, within fifty metres of my apartment, I saw:
A badly crippled man - his knees almost at ninety degree angles - trying to cross a busy street, and no one stopping for him.
An impossibly ancient babushka wrapped in ancient rags, weighed down with two ancient shopping bags, and no one to help her.
A couple of homeless people sitting in a skip - in a skip - eating the rind of a watermelon.
A black dog on the sidewalk, quivering with starvation, dodging the foot that wanted to kick it.
Lord, have mercy.
What can I change about my life, so that people (and dogs) don't have to live like this?
If you are to feed and welcome and clothe the least of these - and you must, it is an imperative, for in so doing you feed and welcome and clothe the King himself - what needs to change about your life?
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and green fields; on - on - and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away...O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
never be done.
I haven't been writing these last three weeks. I haven't been reading, either, apart from the texts that I'm teaching. The region of my brain that deals in words has been co-opted into preparing lessons and planning for the year ahead. However, a very interesting scenario is playing out in the courtyard seven stories below, and I thought I'd better tell you about it while the will is with me.
A small, plain yurt has been erected; dozens of men are squatting around it, alternately smoking and making thoughtful contributions to the pools of spit between their feet. Elderly women with covered heads sit in purposeful silence with hands clasped, and children dressed in their best find ways to play quietly without ruining the white of their shirts.
(This is a yurt on the jailoo: now you need to imagine it in the valley that is our potholed courtyard, with the mountains that are these broken-down apartment blocks on all sides.)
When night falls, the women begin to wail; orchestrated, echoing wails that bounce between our apartment building and the one parallel to it. It's an eerie soundtrack to my dinner-making; the scrambled eggs lose their prosaicness amidst the ululating sounds of sorrow, and eventually I abandon my dinner to the spectacle. From the seventh floor, I can see the lights flickering through the tunduk at the top of the yurt, and the dark shapes passing under it. After a time, a man's voice starts up among the women's. He is singing a dirge, and soon he is singing alone, an haunting elegy for an audience of apartment-dwellers and cold night sky.
Now it's morning; as I was stirring my porridge in that half-asleep Saturday morning sort of way, the wailing was renewed with so much vigour that I had to look out the window again. Right now, the corpse is being carried down the street by a throng of men, while the women remain seated around the yurt and bellow grief.
There is a Kyrgyz saying that goes, "only when a Kyrgyz dies and is laid to rest does he cease to be a nomad." Deaths and marriages are the most important parts of Kyrgyz society, and the rites surrounding death are full of pomp and generally costly; since family honour is involved, the service must be splendidly lavish. A yurt will be set up near the home of the deceased, and the best, most expensive food must be served - traditionally horsemeat. Specially assigned mourners share the wailing and the praying, and as in all Islamic societies, after several days of ritual, an imam will preside over the burial. Memorial services will take place periodically over the next year until the final one, twelve months after burial.
Now I've had the inestimable privilege of observing Kyrgyz funeral rites from my window; I should like to see a wedding one day - if I can possibly do so without having to partake of horse.