Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 4: The drive to Darkhan Village

Met Kengeshbek-baike, my new host father, and stuffed his aging Nissan sedan full of my shit.

Snowboard bag couldn't fit, so we tied it down with an old rope and drove it a few miles to Kengeshbek-baike's friend's place, and dropped it in his big flatbed semi. He said his friend would drive it to Darkhan in a day or two.

Stopped at a bazar, picked up their son, Ulan (22). Didn't notice someone new had gotten in. Kengeshbek-baike, Gulnara-eje, Farida-eje (my counterpart), and Joomart are all in the car.

I'm sitting shotgun. We hit the road again.

We run a red light. Tired of waiting, I guess. Or no need.

On the open road, potholes here and there like landmines.

Kengeshbek-baike says the raods in Kyrgyzstan are bad, and asks me if the raods are bad in the US.
Sometimes, I say.

We hit a pothole at like 50 mph and I wonder if the car will hold up for the whole drive.
Tires are nearly bald and need air.

Windshield and mirrors are cracked.

We push on in silence.

Farida-eje and Gulnara-eje whisper quietly to each other in the back seat. Joomart is sick; he takes his medicine, cough syrup, without complaint.

''Good boy,'' I say to Keneshbek-baike.

''Kiiyiin bala,'' he replies. Difficult boy.

I close my eyes and doze off. There are no raod signs, no speed limit signs, no lines. Only names of towns and villages are marked.

We pass by a cop with a radar gun and an orange baton, like the ones used on airport runways to communicate with pilots when they're taxiing.

I wonder if he's going to pull us over, and what it means to be a foreigner. I left my ID in my bag, in the back, but I don't know how to say that in Kyrgyz.

He doesn't pull us over.

But, the next cop does. Keneshbek-baike pays the bribe, and we go free. The radar guns are bullshit. They pick cars at random, and wave their orange baton at them.

''You will pull over.''

They have families to feed.

''Politzia,'' Keneshbek-baike says, shaking his head.

We stop for gas. The attendant shakes her head. No. We pull away.

Down the road, we try again. No gas here, either.

Keneshbek-baike points out Kazakhstan to our left. The countries are separated by a river just off the road. We stop again for gas. This place has some. I pay for it.

Inside, the car is quiet. I doze off again. Keneshbek-baike asks me if I'm hungry, and some bread is passed up from the back, along with a one-liter bottle of peach soda or something, which we all share.

I wonder what diseases I might catch from these strangers, but decide not to worry about it.

We enter Balykchy and get our first view of Lake Issyk-Kul. It is big and blue, and then it is gone, as the road extends inland.

The mountains are getting bigger. They're shaped like wizard hats, and green. They remind me of Punta Bardini.

Keneshbek-baike points to our right and says, ''Cheena.'' China looks mountainous.

I have a few short texting conversations with some friends from PST as we drive along the South shore of the lake and the sun sets.

It is beautiful, and I hope Darkhan overlooks the lake.

We pass Barskoon and Kichi-Jargylchak, and I mention the volunteers who are living there.

Farida-eje confirms what I said, in English, and I feel that our partnership has begun.

It's dark when we drive into Darkhan. People are silouettes. A man walks with his arm around his buddy's shoulders; women hold hands. Totally normal.

We drop off Farida-eje. I'm told to stay in the car. I wanted to, but somehow we don't say goodbye to each other.

Ulan jumps into the driver's seat. I feel that something is different, but I don't realize he's not Keneshbek-baike at first.

Strange consequence of fatigue and stress that my situational awareness is fading.

I think maybe Ulan wants practice driving. I ask him if he's sixteen.

''Men Jirima-ekie,'' he says, and I felt like I should have known his was 22.

We pull into the driveway. He honks the horn. Nurgazy greets us, helps me with my bags while Keneshbek-baike shows me to my room.

I give him the rest of the 900 soms the Peace Corps gave me for transportation, and tell him it's for him. I could've pocketed it, but I wanted to start off on the right foot. No secrets. No guilt.

He didn't understand. ''Imnegay?'' he asked. Why?

For travel, I said.

I text the PC to tell them I made it to the village while his sons brought in the rest of my bags, and the groceries from the bazar.

Keneshbek-baike gives me a tour of the house, showing me the TV, radio, DVD player, the path to the outhouse and the light switch in the back yard.

Then I tune the guitar in the living room and play a few riffs.

Nurgazy plays a few notes, and it sounds much better than before, when it was out-of-tune.

I fill up my water filter with ''clean water'' from a stand pipe in the back yard, and brush my teeth.

Then I watch an episode of Lost called ''The Outsider''—He walks among us, but he is not one of us—and fall asleep.

That night, I had some of the craziest, most vivid dreams I have ever had in my life.

June 2: One day left in Novo Pokrovka

Last night I packed most of my stuff—snowboards, clothes, and books—and got ready to move to Darkhan Village, on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. I went to bed listening to Jack Johnson on my iPod, hoping that it would put me to sleep. I am buzzing with nervous anticipation.

Today, I woke up early and listened to the rain outside my window for awhile. Then, after breakfast and tea, Talant, Emir, and I loaded my bags into Mederbek-Baike's car, and we drove the short distance to Rahat-Eje's host family's house.

Talant was pumping some Paula Abdul remix in the car. It was so loud the windows were rattling. I looked back at Emir. He had his hands over his ears. I threw my hand in the air and started grooving a little. Talant laughed and did the same. Up ahead, there was a girl in a short skirt and high heels walking along the muddy, potholed road, with her hood up.

''Kiz,'' Talant said. Girl.

He turned the music down, rolled down his window, pulled up alongside her, and slowed the car down to walking speed. They spoke back and forth in Russian. She didn't seem appalled, which surprised me. I couldn't tell if she was 14 or 24, because even young girls wear short skirts and high heels here, near the city. It is totally normal. When we got to an intersection, she was turning left, and we had to go straight, so he asked her for her number, and she actually gave it to him. He pulled over and entered it in his phone. It was eight in the morning, and raining, and Talant was already partying.

We dropped off my bags, spoke to Rahat-Eje briefly, and then drove back home and watched ''Troy'' in Russian. I asked Gulaim if I could clean my room before I move out, but she insisted that she would do it for me. This family's hospitality has no end.

May 21: "I've had many troubles, most of which have never happened."--Mark Twain

There are less than two weeks left of Pre-Service Training. They've ramped up our Krygyz lessons, and added another two hours per day of class. My group also has a new Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF), named Rahat-Eje.

Rahat-Eje is a teacher in her late thirties who lives in Talas with her husband and four kids. She demands a lot from us. She thinks fast and talks fast, and very rarely speaks English, although her English is really good. Her lessons move so fast, there's no time to take notes. Here's what I do: I focus, listen, absorb, and try not to get left behind. Then, I go home and pass out for a couple hours. She is an excellent teacher.

One time, after class, we were hanging out in Kylebek's back yard, and I was lying flat on my back, staring into the blue sky with my shades on, bemoaning the apparent learning disability, of which I had been previously unaware, that was causing me to get my ass kicked by Rahat-Eje's lessons every day. I later told another K-18, Brooke, from Washington, about this, and she said that, one time, she had tears streaming down her face during one of Rahat-Eje's lessons. I think we made each other feel better. We are learning Kyrgyz at an accelerated rate.

In a week, we have our site placement announcements. This is on everybody's mind. Where will we go? It's a big deal, and I look forward to watching that day unfold, to gauge everyone's reactions. We've all been told that there are good things and bad things about every oblast, but I lobbied hard for Issyk-Kul because of the big ski resort there. Also, Iskender and Altynai have a summer home there. That said, I'll make the best out of wherever they send me.

It's hard to imagine what my new host family will be like, so I've decided not to worry about it. I will not lose sleep over it. Hopefully I'll get along with them as well as I get along with my current family.

May 18: The Novo Pokrovka Crew

We have a tight language group, and feel it is our duty to represent.

Kylebek, from Kansas City, got his nickname the second day we were with our host families, when his host dad, a fiery Kyrgyz marshrutka driver, stunned Brandy by repeatedly yelling at Kyle and calling him ''Kyle-BEK!'' He wasn't angry, he just always yelled. Kyle is one of the most intelligent people I've ever known, and he knows it.

Brandy was only with us for a week or so, before ET-ing back to Colorado, where she hoped to marry her boyfriend of five years. Losing her brought us closer together.

Ivy is a married 24-year-old from Arkansas who is very easy to talk to. She and I have been known to grab a beer together and solve all the problems of the world. She is dedicated to learning Kyrgyz better than her husband, Nick, who lives in International, a few villages away.

Esther is a beautiful Korean-American from Los Angeles, whose father is a pastor and who, just eleven years ago, moved to the United States to go to school, even though she spoke no English. She is a positive force, and an inspires me to see the good in all people.

I hope to stay in touch with this crew throughout my service. We have been through some battles together, during language classes and afternoons teaching local students, and I appreciate the opportunity to get to know them. The four of us also wrote the K-18 contract for resilience together, which was a meaningful contribution.

May 16: Talant

I spent most of my day off today working outside with Azat's younger brother, Talant, who's been living in Kazakhstan. Talant is 25, unmarried, and always smiling and joking. He speaks no English, only Russian, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh. He likes to go to Bishkek with his friends, and when he tells me about it, he always dances around and sings the word, ''Yeah,'' and talks about girls.

The night he showed up, his family brought out all their old photo albums and reminisced. He showed me some pictures of himself without a shirt on and said, ''Semiz bala,'' or fat boy. I liked him immediately.

One night Talant saw me working on my laptop and said that he can buy a wire in the city and use his phone as a modem so I can get on the Internet from the house. I knew it wouldn't work, but I didn't know how to tell him that without just saying,
''No,'' which was not what I wanted to say, because that would be rude. So, I feigned interest in his plan, just to see what would happen.

The next day, he came home with the wire, which had cost him about 200 som, about seven bucks, US. I plugged his phone into my MacBook, fired up the bluetooth, made some progress, but then came up short, as expected. He needed to call his ISP to find out what number to call to gain access to the Internet, but I didn't know how to communicate this with him. He called his friend to ask for help, and I opened up a chess game on my computer. Talant started playing me, and quickly beat me, while he was talking on the phone. He knows a few English words.

''Check mate,'' he said.

Since then, I've played Talant in chess, on his board, a number of times, and have never won. I think that if I ever win, it will be because he let me.

Talant, like many Kyrgyz people, has a different notion of privacy. For one thing, he goes to the bathroom with the outhouse door wide open. One day I almost walked in on him, but at the last second, a caught a glimpse of his hand near the ground as he was squatting. The other thing is, it's normal for him to open my door and walk right into my room, if my light is on and he knows I'm up.

''Kandai,'' he says. How you doing? I'm usually studying, so he asks me how my studying is going. I need to practice speaking, so I ask him where he's been.

''Kaiakka bardung?''

''Shaar,'' he says. The city. ''Yeaah.'' Then he says something about work, even though he doesn't have a job. This happens just about every day. I haven't been able to grasp what he's talking about.

So anyway, I was working with him outside for most of the day today. He wanted to tear a section of the roof down that was covering a small room filled with some random junk and old cobwebs. Talant ripped two-by-fours down with a pry bar, and I piled them up neatly against the house. We worked well together. He taught me a few words, and my broken Kyrgyz began to flow a little better, after a while. We took frequent breaks to sit and talk.

Spending time with Talant was a great opportunity to practice speaking and listening to Kyrgyz. It also felt good to show him that Americans can do physical work, too. In fact, a few days before, I had helped him break rocks apart with a sledgehammer, for a different home improvement project. That was dangerous, since there were pieces of rocks flying in all directions, and we weren't wearing eye protection. Also, there had been neighborhood kids standing around, watching us, easily within striking distance. At one point I guided Emir, my three-year-old host brother, out of the way. The Kyrgyz have different standards of safety.

Sitting in his back yard, Talant asked me where the Peace Corps was going to send me for the next two years, and I told him that I didn't know, but that I was hoping for Issyk-Kul. He told me that next week, he could drive me there, to check it out.

I told him that I couldn't, that the Peace Corps wouldn't allow it. He said that he could drive me there on Sunday. I replied that I couldn't do it. Then he said, again, that he could drive me there next Sunday. As he was talking, I found myself bewildered, looking up into the sky, trying not listen, hoping that he would stop. I had heard of this, that in their culture, Kyrgyz people often extended invitations three times. Frustrated and confused, I raised my voice and said that the Peace Corps says no!

''Jak shi, Brandy,'' Talant said.

Our break was over. We stood up and got back to work.

May 9: Victory Day

Don't ever tell a former Soviet that Americans won World War II. It was the U.S.S.R. that was the most committed, that was dug in the deepest. The former Soviet Union suffered the most casualties during the war, which they call, ''The Great Patriotic War;'' I've been told that every Soviet family lost a family member while fighting the Nazis. Today, May 9, ''Jengish Koon,'' is the day that they are remembered.

Last night before going to bed, my host father, Mederbek-Baike, told me to rest, because tomorrow was Victory Day. I got in his car this morning with he and little Emir, and we drove less than a mile to a white, courthouse-like building, where the festivities were taking place. I was nervous, because I knew people were going to want to talk to me, and I would have to tell them that I didn't understand what they were saying.

The three of us stood with our backs against the building, while kids dressed up in the uniforms of the time and performed choreographed marches and dances. One dance depicted a couple who, at the end of song, parted ways, as the man waved goodbye and went off to fight in the war. I wondered what the elderly women in the crowd were thinking, and what they were talking about.

My host father is a respected man in my village, so he was greeted by many other men, who shook his hand and said a few words on their way past. None of them shook my hand, and I wondered if it was because I was a foreigner. I tried not to let it bother me. I just stood there and did my best to look respectable.

A few speakers said some words to the crowd, in Kyrgyz and in Russian. I didn't understand anything except when one Kyrgyz man, who was a leader of the village, said the words, ''sixty-five'' (''altimish besh''), meaning that this was the 65th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War. It felt good to be able to pick up even a couple words in his speech. It was a small victory. Then, a few soldiers fired their guns into the air, over the building, and the ceremony was over.

A few minutes later, Mederbek introduced me to the important man who had given the speech. They were friends. I can't remember his name, beacause Kyrgyz names are new vocabulary words that take time to sink in, but he was wearing a nice grey suit, with a ribbon pinned onto his chest, commemorating the celebration. I could tell he was successful because he had all of his teeth.

''Salamatsysby,'' he said to me, shaking my hand. Hello. I panicked and forgot what to say.

''Jak shi,'' I said. Good. We both shared a laugh at this, at my botched greeting, and I loosened up a little. There were a couple other men standing with us now, a circle of four, and I recited the Kyrgyz sentences that I am most familiar with.

I told them that my name is Berdebek (people always laugh at this), that I am a volunteer from California, that I'm an English teacher at the school, and that I'm going to be in Kyrgyzstan for two years. One of the men was Josh's host father, an intelligent, artistic K-18 who plays the guitar, and, now, the komuz. It was good to talk to them.

They asked me the standard questions: How old am I? Am I married? No? What do I think of Kyrgyz girls? These questions come up in most conversations, because age and marital status are very important here. It's difficult to explain why I am 32 and not married. I'm going to have to work on that. But, I'm starting to get comfortable with this sort of drilling, because it feels good to know what people are saying to me. It is amazing to actually be able to hold a conversation!

The important man in the grey suit, who had teeth, accompanied Mederbek-Baike, Emir, and I to a small park with grass and trees. A group of women were setting up tables under a large tarp, and cooking. It was a family reunion-like setting. The man asked me a few questions that I couldn't make out. I told him I didn't understand, and he accepted that.

He then brought me under the tarp, and told me to introduce myself to the women, and to tell them where I am from. I'm not sure how I knew that that was what I was told to do, I just knew. I think maybe I picked up one or two words from what was being said, and, despite my efforts, my brain connected the dots. That's what life is like for me right now: reacting to a subconscious understanding of verbal, and non-verbal, cues.

I'm getting used to understanding only one percent of what people say.

I caught the next thing, though. Mederbek-Baike said, ''Berinchi, bys ichebys, anan, bys tamak jebys.'' First, we drink, then, we eat food.

We walked back to his car and Emir and I waited inside while Mederbek-Baike bought some vodka, a couple cups, and a bottle of soda for Emir from the store. Then, we drove across the street and parked in front of a blue, iron gate. We opened the gate, which led into an empty, overgrown plot of land, and walked inside. Mederbek found a rusted, cast iron object which we used as a bench, to hold our drinks.

But first, we had to wash our hands. It is very important here to wash your hands before you handle food or drink. So, he pulled the end off of a crimped hose laying in the weeds, uncrimped it, and rubbed his hands under the water. I did the same. I have no idea where the source of the water was, but I didn't trust it, so I disinfected my hands with the bottle of Purell that lives in my pocket these days, and prepared to drink.

We weren't quite ready, though. The cups had fallen onto the ground when we had first set up our table, and now had to be rinsed out, with the sketchy hand-washing water. I gasped as Mederbek-Baike poured this water into my cup and rinsed it out. Using that cup went against every instinct I've trusted over the years to stay clean and healthy in the wilderness, but it was too late to back down. Later, I would be in the outhouse, bummed, with some explosive diarrhea.

So there we were, my host father, in his expensive blue suit and polished black shoes, a respected man in his village, and I; drinking shots of vodka, before noon, in a small field of weeds and scrap metal out of plastic cups that had been washed out with questionable water from a black hose on the ground, and this was totally normal.

The first shot loosened his tongue, and he explained that, I think, he owned this plot of land, and that in a year, there will be a café on it. Then he said something about Scott, the volunteer who lived with his family back in 2005, that I couldn't quite get. He went on and on, in Kyrgyz, as if I knew what he was saying, slurring words together and stopping every once in a while to ask, ''tooshoondoonbu?'' Do I understand? I wanted very badly to understand, but I couldn't. Then I just wanted him to stop.

We drank our second shot, which emptied the bottle. He tossed it on the ground, along with the cups, and Emir's bottle of soda, and we went back to the party. Littering here is totally normal.

I ate lunch with a few of the teachers I recognized from working at the school once a week. It was nice to see them. They introduced me to some of their friends, who asked how old I was, and if I was married. We drank some vodka together, finished our lunch, and went our separate ways.