Tomorrow marks one month until I take a little hiatus from life in The KG. Or shall I say, Kyrgeezy, as a former colleague of mine in Italy aptly nicknamed my new home. (For the record, he also gave hip-hop names to all of the little Italian villages around us, including the one we lived in!) And by little hiatus, I mean 3.5-4 months depending on how things play out.
Life around Bishkek continues to be filled with everyday adventures that provide endless “entertainment” for me. Last month, the new hair dryer that I bought when I arrived shorted out. Feeling more confident in my local area, I headed down to this tunnel of small kiosks at a main intersection near my apartment. These kiosks sell everything from laundry detergent to school supplies to makeup to computer accessories. I aimed to get a new hair dryer. Well, I bought a nicer one that then shorted out the first time I used it. I don’t consider myself high-maintenance at all. A hair dryer is the ONE hair care luxury I insist on having unless I’m out in some place like the Sahara. (Duh.)
Frustrated, I went back to the same “mini-Best Buy” I bought the first one at. While my Russian skillz are definitely improving, I’m in no way able to explain a hair dryer disaster to a non-English speaking employee. Using Google Translate, we went back and forth discussing the hair dryers on display. His excuse was, “They’re all from China,” when I told him mine broke after two months. I finally picked one out and walked to the “cashier desk”. Suddenly, the employee tapped me on the shoulder and showed me his Google Translate phone screen, which read, “You can buy insurance.” I promptly said, “For how long?” back to him in Russian and he answered with, “Two years.” He went on to say that I just needed to pay 18% of the total hair dryer price. Another employee explained that if my hair dryer broke during this time, I just had to bring it back and they’d replace it for free. I WAS SOLD. Never have I ever bought insurance on a hair dryer in the US, no wait, *anywhere*.
You may not be surprised to learn that when I started to plan my move here, I was eager to gobble up as much local info as I could. A colleague recommended the ‘Expats in Bishkek’ Facebook group and told me about the bubble.kg listserv for the international community. Through Bubble, I’d come across a spa deal at the Hyatt Regency, the only 5-star and Western-chain hotel here. Subsequently, I hit up the Hyatt last weekend to get a chocolate scrub massage before the deal expired. The spa staff showed me around, gave me a robe and towels, and told me to spend time in the dry sauna for a few minutes before the massage. Simple enough.
Well, my one and only sauna experience came in Finland with a Finnish friend….well, because I was in Finland and that’s what you do. I generally steer clear of saunas because they are not for me. This time, I thought, I’ll try it out. The spa staff said they’d come get me in a few minutes anyway. I went into the sauna and turned the 15 minute timer over to track my time inside. However, I had no idea what the rules of the sauna were – ie how long to spend inside and I didn’t receive any other instructions. When the timer hit 10 minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and I walked out. I went to grab my robe on the nearby bench and dizzily stumbled into the wall. I couldn’t see straight and was clearly overheated. That’s what the spa staff came in and saw me completely disoriented. I certainly scared the other Kyrgyz woman in the locker room and she helped the spa staff member get me into a cold shower to cool me down.
A few minutes later, I clamored out of the shower, still a bit dazed and confused and feeling bad that I had worried others. Clearly, I had stayed in the sauna too long. Lesson learned. Later, my Russian teacher would tell me, “Yes, I usually only stay in the sauna for about 5 minutes at a time.” Oops. I was in good hands though and the spa staff rushed to get my water and hot coffee, allowing me to settle down and giving me the option to postpone the massage. I declined and was treated to one of the best massages I’ve ever had for only about $23.
Perhaps the most confused I’ve ever been here was when I attended a Kyrgyz Chess Academy event…even though I have no idea how to play chess. I wanted to learn and I thought the publicized visit of chess champ Garry Kasparov would be the perfect chance. I mean, he IS the master, right? The event (all in Russian) started off with the Kyrgyz National Chess Champion reviewing former big time chess matches and moves made by Kasparov, asking attendees – including kids who are crazy good at chess – what their next move would be. I could follow along well enough due to understanding the Russian words for numbers, white, and black and also thanks to my only previous chess experience of watching the biannual live action human chess match in Marostica, Italy.
90 minutes into the event I began to wonder when this chess training would end and when Kasparov would show up. He was the reason I was there! Disclaimer: Yes, I was also nerding out over his role as a Russian political dissident AND as chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. I finally went over to the English-speaking coordinator during the break and asked her what was up, when Kasparov would be there. She looked at me in disbelief and said that he wasn’t coming, that this was just a Kasparov-themed master class in chess. I then showed her the online ad I saw clearly saying that we’d have the chance to meet him at this event. Turns out the ad and the media outlet were totally wrong and as a result of being the only foreigner there, I was late to the party in realizing that this dude was not gonna rock up. Oops. The organizers felt pretty bad but still offered to give me a free chess lesson some time. Win!
If you follow me on Snapchat, you know that my daily transport escapades usually come with a random interaction of some sort. Last week on the way back from teaching at night, my taxi driver surprised me with YouTube DJ-ing R&B and hip hop songs from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. He knew almost all the words to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s ‘Crazy in Love’ and we were singing along all the way back to my apartment. Probably my most awkward Russian language faux pas also occurred in a taxi. The conversation went like this:
Driver: What’s your salary?
Me: Not enough! (laughing)
Driver: Do you have children?
Driver: Why not?
Me: (as a joke) Because I’m not married!
The driver started laughing incontrollably and I realized the inevitable. I had used the Russian word which I THOUGHT meant ‘single’ and this likely conveyed something else. I translated my realization to him via Google Translate and he nodded his head smiling. I was on my way to Russian class anyway and beforehand ran into a friend who just finished her more advanced Russian lesson. She explained that the word I used for ‘single’ is used when referring to single men, and that another word referred to a single woman. Oops. Because of course.
While taxis indutibly come with fodder, marshrutka (mini-buses) remain my transport method of choice. My #215 marshrutka always goes the same way and I never have to argue about the fare or drop-off point. Naturally, because I viewed marshrutka as reliable, on Monday, they weren’t. As I walked to my marshrutka stop to commute to campus, a message popped up in our international faculty chat. A colleague said she had been waiting for a marshrutka for 15 minutes when typically she can get one in 3-4 minutes. What was up? Fortunately, another colleague responded, explaining that the marshrutka drivers were on strike that day. They were protesting the government requiring them to pay an annual passenger insurance fee of 3,000 soms ($44 USD). Time to figure out another way to work.
Trolley buses and regular buses were still running but as I glanced at them rolling by, people were packed in there liked sardines. No way I was going to be able to get in one. Using the Yandex Russian taxi app, I finally was able to get a taxi 30 minutes later. As expected, taxis were in high demand in the absence of the marshrutkas, easily the most popular form of transport in Kyrgyzstan. I’m not sure what the strike achieved other than driving everyone’s cash instead into the pockets of taxi drivers. Other Kyrgyz argued that the city looked beautiful without marshrutkas rushing around and advocated for the government to fund a fleet of new buses to replace them. Likewise, most locals had little sympathy for these drivers because the amount of the fee they were protesting was not much when spread out over a year.
Trying to take it easy before a coming whirlwind of a summer, I’m still going and checking out tons of cool bars, cafes, and restaurants. My Kyrgyz friends have recommended some fantastic places and finding good food has been no problem whatsoever. In my last blog, I referred to the well-known Sierra Coffee as “Kyrgyz Starbucks” often frequented by expats. I don’t understand this at all because there are comfy, trendy cafes with better food, drinks, and lush surroundings. Just this week, I spent hours in Boris Cafe and Bakery, home to Italian-quality pastries, Easter pastels, parrot-adorning chairbacks, and latte art. Last night, I decided to go try out a craft beer bar on the way home from seeing ‘Ready Player One’ at the cinema. As I indulged in my cider, I observed the bartender pulling out the UNO card game but then realized that she nor her two friends knew how to play the game. She asked me in Russian if I knew how to play, I said, “Oh yes, of course.” And that’s how I ended up teaching some Kyrgyz women how to play UNO while watching the Juventus-Real Madrid match.
Amidst all of this, in case you were wondering, yes, I have been working! Since I just need to be on campus for certain meetings and the classes I’m teaching, I often work from home or from cafes around town. Now that I’ve begun to meet more people here and connect with those in various circles, I’ve tried to make my classes more active. In mid-March, I took my Social Entrepreneurship students to ololohaus, an innovative art/event/coworking space and studio. Last week, I took my Entrepreneurship students to Tech Farm, home to a number of tech startups, like my favorite Namba Food.kg that delivers food right to my apartment door. The students loved the Marvel Comics-inspired graffiti on the walls here! Today, I arranged for a tour of the nearby Asanbay Center, a hip and incredibly versatile art gallery and event space. Later this month, I’ll have someone from the World Nomad Games Secretariat (Organizing Committee) come as a guest speaker.
Outside of class, things vary day to day. Sometimes I have 1-on-1 meetings with students. Sometimes I’m “playing detective” in order to find some sort of information I need at the university. Last Thursday, my boss (the dean of our business school) and I attended a forum called “Prospects on the Development of Social Entrepreneurship in Kyrgyzstan” in the city center. The event, sponsored by the British Council and the Association of Social Entrepreneurs in Kyrgyzstan, brought together change agents in government, business, academia, development, and local organizations in order to brainstorm future opportunities and areas of collaboration. In a few weeks, I’ll do a presentation for new recruits on the new Social Entrepreneurship program I’m coordinating through the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. For now, my main side project has been launching TEDxAUCA and recruiting students to join our core team in organizing the event. Can’t understand anyone who complains there is nothing to do here! Hell, I was wildly fascinated by everything during my first trip to Globus, an enormous grocery store, today.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to get out of the city more in the past month. On St. Patrick’s Day, I went hiking around Kok Moinok Canyons, which was a little nerve-wracking with my not-quite-100% left foot. I went with a group of mainly locals and our guides were excellent. The highlight of the day was easily our impromptu visit to Issyk Kul, a massive majestic saltwater lake in northern Kyrgyzstan – about 3-4 hours from Bishkek. It’s pretty much the Riviera of Central Asia in summertime. The clear sky was postcard blue and the snow-capped mountains overlooking the lake elicited feelings of true wonder. We perused a deserted beachfront park and pier, with waterslides, before the local owner came out and started yelling at us to leave.
March 21 in Kyrgyzstan – and the rest of Central Asia – is Nooruz, Persian New Year celebrating the first day of spring. A local travel agency partnered with the Kyrgyz National Games on the south shore of Issyk Kul for us to attend the games via a day trip from Bishkek. I think the event was funded in some part by USAID because I saw tons of USAID flyers and brochures there. I don’t think I could have experienced anymore Kyrgyz culture in one day than I did. Right after we arrived, we watched the Opening Ceremony featuring traditional singing, dancing, and other performances. Then, everyone scattered among the ten or so yurts in the area. There was tug-o-war, kid archery, male wrestling, and eagle hunting. During the eagle hunting demonstration, a horseback rider dragged a fox carcass from the horse as he rode away and then the eagle swooped in to snatch it away.
For me, the most interesting part of the Kyrgyz National Games was actually the food. Food was everywhere! There were yuuuge pots of plov (essentially Central Asian pilaf) and giant cauldrons filled with stewing parts of sheep. Lunch was reserved and set up for us in our group’s very own yurt. Three long tables were set on the ground and were literally covered with food. I could barely see the table underneath. First meal in a yurt: Check! We were also able to walk into all of the other yurts there, many of which had their own elaborate meal setups. Such colors and carpets!
With one month of this first Kyrgyz stint left, I’m already feeling a bit sad that I won’t get to enjoy the warm and green summer here. Locals complain about the 35-40 degree Celsius heat but hey, at least it’s not humid. Looking forward to even more inadvertent exploits over the next few weeks! потому что, конечно. (Because of course.)