Wednesday, April 07, 2010
The View from an Undisclosed Location
By R.B. Moreno
Two weeks in this corner of Central Asia feels somehow like a small eternity. Since my last post, as part of Peace Corps training, I've joined a family of sheep herders who drive a Soviet-era Lada and graze a herd of koň along railroad tracks bisecting a small city in northern Kyrgyzstan. (It can't be named here for security reasons.) The family, whom I'll call the Tyioks, consists of two grandparents, both in their 50s, three daughters (one of whom just earned her driver's license), a teenage son apparently handy with diesel engines, and two grandchildren who carry around the decks of playing cards I brought from Americaдan like religious totems.
At the bazaar
Each day of training, which runs six days a week, begins with wedges of homemade bread (нaн), green tea (чaň), and two eggs over-easy (жуmуptka) served up by Ms. Tyiok. By eight o'clock I've walked a half-mile down a road facing the soaring Tian-Shen mountain range and arrived at a tutor's house. Here three other Peace Corps trainees and I receive language lessons in a dining room kept just above freezing by a small stove. This home and others nearby remind me of Guatemala City: low bungalows ringed with high fences and snarling dogs, pit toilets, and laundry swaying in the breeze. (Just now, despite the cold, I met an elaborately-patterned frog on the path to my own outhouse.)
A night visitor
We lunch with one of our four host families, and each mother seems intent on outdoing the last in plying her guests with food. In this part of the country, Kyrgyz cooking leans heavily on potatoes, onions, rice, pasta, mutton, and, thankfully, for the Tyiok household, cabbage and carrot salads. In the afternoon we take walks to local attractions: the bazaar, the gymnasium, a river promenade lined with trash, a group of boys tossing painted sheep bones that stand in for marbles. Just before dusk I run laps along the railroad track, with bearded Mr. Tyiok waving encouragement to the crazy American in shorts. By night, with great patience and gesticulation, this bear of a man toils at my Kyrgyz vocabulary with help from the television and his daughters, who arm themselves with flashcards.
A stroll along the river
Amidst this generosity, the past week has brought reminders that Kyrgyzstan can be a restive place. Hikes in energy prices spurred protests and government censorship of the media just prior to my arrival in late March, and today a similar scene played out in downtown Bishkek. Internet service was unavailable for much of the day along with most TV channels after clashes in a northern province left scores of police wounded, according to news reports. The BBC described protesters overturning cars in the capital city, tear gas being fired, and lines of troops guarding government buildings.
Then, after dinner, my vocabulary lesson was interrupted by a barrage of TV gunfire. Two Kyrgyz channels began replaying unedited footage from the earlier in the day showing military vehicles set ablaze and a crowd in Bishkek approaching a gated compound. One man removed his shirt and approached troops cloaked in riot gear, spreading his arms in defiance. Shots rang out for minutes on end and cameras showed bloodstained pavement and protesters holding aloft bullets recovered from pockmarks in surrounding buildings. At least three men appeared dead or seriously wounded; ambulances were allowed to ferry away the bodies.
The most surreal aspect of all of this was watching the youngest Tyiok boy prance around the living room tonight. Along with playing cards, local schoolchildren are fond of a certain plastic toy machine gun that emits a nasty pop. To him, the rounds echoing off our walls must have seemed just as entertaining as those in the Russian action films that play in loops on Kyrgyz TV -- when there's not a revolution underway.