Oh Kyrgyzstan Culture, how you have tricked me. I thought I would come to you and I would blog everyday (more like once every two weeks, but one can fantasize of grandeur), I thought I would be living in a yurt (or at least in something made of fossilized cow offal), and I thought I would be full of distaste having to learn a completely new language…(That ones true). Life in Kyrgyzstan. Wow.
In this blog I hope to relate the wonder that is living in Kyrgyzstan, thus far. And yes, outhouses, dysentery, stifling heat, and sheep meat will come into play. So have no fear.
So lets back up a bit. For the last 2 months I had been living in a small village about 40 minutes outside of Bishkek, for the 2 month Pre-Service Training (PST) that the [intlink id=”1044″ type=”post”]Peace Corps[/intlink] offers (read: forces) all volunteers to take. PST is a blessing and a curse. You receive intensive language, cultural, and technical training. It is a time when you to build phenomenal relationships with your fellow PC Volunteers (PCV’s, yay acronym soup!).
During PST, you get to live with local families, who have all been trained to expect the oddities that are our Western Ways: What do you mean you don’t want to eat sheer sheep fat?; You’re going running? Where to?; You are the worst hand launderer alive. These families are also what we have come to learn are ‘sympathetic listeners’, meaning they are very patient as we learn/butcher the Kyrgyz language, and help us learn by continually giving us the words of objects around us. The Kyrgyz word for honey you may ask, yes so did I. Multiple times. And I still can’t remember the word for chair.
My homestay family welcomed me into their home, and allowed me to play with their kids, which is surprising in itself. I ended up having a ton of fun playing with my little 3 year old brother Ernazar, or Ero for short. I’m not sure if he was crazy before I got there or if I made him more so, but we had fun. And I found out having a kid around isn’t so bad. So what they say is true, the Peace Corps does change your perceptions of life, sigh. Especially when said perception is running around in little more than underwear waving a green light up plastic sword. So totally safe. Admittedly, I have also held him out a window so he could see what was going on outside. Yep, just call me Michael Jackson!
The village I lived in, had about 2500 people. Ha, now, making any absolute value statement like this is absurd. We could never get a totally straight answer on the population of our village, so I’m ballparking. Sometimes, it’s not even really that easy figuring out who lives in the house you’re living in. Relatives come and go, Grandma sometimes sleeps at this house or that one, and children just disappear for days on end only to reappear with screams and new toys. Generally in my house there was my Apa and Ata (Mom and Dad, who were only a few years older than me), my 2 teenaged sisters, my 11 year old brother, and 3 year old Ero. Sometimes other random cousins would be around, and sometimes Chong Apa (Grandma) would be there too. I physically always knew when Chong Apa was at the dinner table because my stomach would be distended after a force feed of bread, meat and whatever else she could launch onto my plate.
So anyways, I lived in this village with four other PCV’s, all girls. Yes I know, ALL girls! It was like living in that all girls residence at UVic again. We all lived in homestays, and would go several times a week to our teacher, Rahat’s homestay house for Kyrgyz lessons. So we saw a lot of each other and upon observation by one of the current volunteers, may be the weirdest and most bonded group of Kyrgyz language learners ever. Lets just say shit gets both weird and real when you live in a small village, learning a language that actually has a letter that forces you to make that horking sound, and it is ooyat for females to buy alcohol at the store. But we did have fun, and Rahat loved us.
Village Living in Kyrgyzstan
The village had 3-4 small stores, depending on who felt like opening that day, and most of which carry generally the same items. Though there was one in particular that was bigger and a bit nicer, and sold ice cream. Magical. Depending on if the fridges were plugged in, the Cokes might not be cold, but when those Cokes were cold, again, magic. We also had a post office that we thought was a derelict building for our first several weeks, and a couple government buildings. And that was basically it, infrastructure wise. But have no fear, there were many children running around calling out HELLOOOOO from a distance as soon as they saw white skin. One day Steph and I were walking and heard this all too familiar greeting, but couldn’t see any kids. Then we figured out they were way up high in a tree. I taught one group of these little monsters to say What’s Up? instead of Hello, just to change things up, and to make me laugh.
There are also a good amount of dogs who may jump out at any given time to say hello, but in a scary rabies infecting kind of way. An extremely advanced, high tech way of combating these venomous scourges is what is well known as a ‘dog rock’. I think most of you can figure out what that is.
Most of the roads in our village were not paved except for the main ones, so a phenomenon called ‘village feet’ occurs. Especially in the summer when wearing closed toed shoes and socks is unthinkable. Oh yes, Kyrgyzstan is hot! But don’t worry, in 5 months I will be saying how cold it is! Of course a paved road doesn’t necessarily mean a good road. The road that went past my house out of town towards Kazakhstan was pseudo paved but driving down it was like navigating a minefield. A minefield that could erupt and cause severe damage to your backside, or your head depending how tall you were and how long the ceiling of the car was. I of course only had to suffer the posterior, but suffer I did.
To get out of the village we would either walk, and get our feet super dirty, or take the local transport called marshrutkas. Marshrutkas are large vans that have about 16 seats, and then standing room for approximately 200. It’s a physical marvel, just trust it, and let go of your ideas of personal space and odor control. So marshrutkas basically go along routes and stop to pick up and drop off people as they go. Getting into a marshrutka is normally not that hard, as you just cram your body amongst the pile of other bodies. Getting out can be an issue, especially in time for your stop.
Marshrutkas are great places to obtain physical contact if you are starved for such, or to measure exactly how much your own body has grown since arriving in the land of bread, rice, and pasta. You think you can fit your ass into that space between that old lady and that other old lady? Yah, think again. Marshrutkas can also be virtual hotboxes, as normally none of the windows open, so in the summer it’s like you yourself are starting to cook. See above comment regarding odor. For more information on the excitement of [intlink id=”1033″ type=”post”]Transportation in Kyrgyzstan[/intlink], check out that blog!
Toilets in Kyrgyzstan
A typical Kyrgyz house can mean many things, even within me and the other girls in my village, our homes ranged greatly. Some people had showers, most didn’t, some had inside toilets, most didn’t. I was in the latter category for both. Most of the trainees used outhouses, the quality and the depth of which could make or break your toileting experience. It could also drastically change your gastro-intestinal issues experiences (and everybody experiences this once in a while, some more than others…).
My home had an outhouse, made of corrugated tin, which meant that it was a solid structure and nobody could see my glistening white ass in the moonlight, but in the mid-afternoon, on a hot day…yep it was more a fecal sauna than a place of hygiene worship. But the pit was good and deep, so it was all good!!
Most homes in the villages are on plots of land, and have some sort of small kitchen farming going on. In our yard there were various things growing, as well as a varying amount of chickens and roosters running around. Well, the chickens were running away from the roosters, if you know what I mean. We also had a bit of a revolving door of larger, better animals. A couple of dogs, a few horses, no sheep except for the dead ones, which is good, sheep are annoying and gross.
Guesting in Kyrgyzstan
Despite differences, every home has one thing in common, they have an area of the house devoted to the art of Guesting. Guesting is the Kyrgyz way of hosting and being hosted for large feasts, or a toi in Kyrgyz, celebrations for really whatever you want to celebrate. Obvious reasons for toi’s would be birthdays, births, weddings, engagements etc. A not so obvious reason may be that the family just bought a new car. I love this, I support any reason to have a feast. Toasting is a big thing at toi’s, basically everybody goes around the table toasting and showering good wishes on the person of honor. Toasts can be obvious and sentimental (I wish you good health and I love you) to outright cray (“I wish you many large Mercedes Benz’s”).
On one of our last days of training, my village group, all girls, went out for lunch with our amazing language teacher Rahat, and Rahat wished that all of our dreams come true, and that we have wonderful husbands and as many children as possible but ideally two girls and two boys…!!! Thanks Rahat!! So toasting is great and entertaining, I look forward to understanding more of these toasts as I understand more of the language.
Food is obviously a huge deal for volunteers, and also in Kyrgyzstan in general. Everything in Kyrgyz culture revolves around food, all social encounters happen over food, and drinking tea and eating bread is a must for establishing any relationship. The first real phrase that most foreigners in Kyrgyzstan will learn is “Chai Eetch?” Which basically means “Come and drink tea and eat bread until you can’t fit anything more down your esophagus…and then do it again”. As I mentioned earlier, Kyrgyz people love to eat, they love to host, hospitality is probably the important cultural trait, and being hospitable is equal to feeding your guest. As much as that guests’ body can handle. My Apa was not a crazy force feeder, thank Manas, but my Chong Apa was all about fattening me up. So when she was around, I had to sneak things back onto the main plate, kind of like how I do at home with tomatoes, ick!
Kyrgyz cuisine is made up of a lot of carbs, bread is always on the table, no meal would happen without it. Soups are common, with noodles or rice, as well as the Russian style borscht. There are a few dishes with lighter dough either rolled out and layered to make a lasagna-ish dish called oromo, or rolled into dumplings called mantes. As I said, chai/tea is huge. Drank at every meal, no matter the hotness of the weather. I’m a tea drinker, so I’m down with it, but I’m sure the coffee drinkers in the crew look at that morning chai with disdain.
Bathing in Kyrgyzstan- The Banya
Another pretty amazing thing about life in Kyrgyzstan is what is called the banya. The banya is basically a structure that most families have on their properties, that is a sauna. There is a place on the exterior of the banya to make a fire, and the fire heats up a big cistern of water inside the banya, as well as heats the banya itself. You then go into the banya, sit there, mix the extremely hot water with cold water in a bucket, and throw the water over you in a fashion that both gets you clean and almost makes you feel like you are at a spa.
Shaving your legs in the banya is comfortable, as you are sitting on a bench, and effective, because your pores are open! It’s also an excuse to sit in there a bit longer. The water, once thrown over your body, drains into the floor and out into what I would imagine is a high tech irrigation system to the drainage ditch. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe in the banya, because it gets mucho hot, and also sometimes what is being burned is not an altogether organic material. Nonetheless, you come out feeling like a princess, and you’re clean, for the time being.
The downside of banya culture is that to light and fuel a banya, takes time and resources, so most families only do it once a week. But have no fear, in the meantime you can do what is called a bucket banya, which is boiling some water, mixing it with cold, and going into the banya (without fire being lit) and bucket bathing. There are also baby wipes. Genius inventions that they are. There have been many jokes, normally of a sexual nature, about the banya, but my favorite is actually the thought of peeing in the banya, made possible by that high tech drainage. No, I have not worked up the nerve to actually do it. But lets be honest, yes, I hope to eventually do so.
So about what is happening to me right now. I have completed my first two months of PST training, and have been sworn in as a [intlink id=”1044″ type=”post”]Peace Corps Volunteer[/intlink]. Part of the Swearing in Ceremony was of course the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. Which I don’t actually know the words to. Because I’m from Canada. So I hummed. And then they didn’t even do Oh Canada! Shocking. At least we didn’t have to Pledge Allegiance to the Flag, I probably would have been sent home! After Swearing In, all 55 volunteers set off in their separate directions to their permanent sites for 6 weeks. There are volunteers all over the country, mostly in villages, some in regional centers, and a few in cities. I am living in [intlink id=”970″ type=”post”]Osh[/intlink], which is the Southern capital, and is what I asked for from the beginning. I will blog about Osh in a separate blog, but so far, after only a few days, it’s awesome! So I am here for 6 weeks and then I go back to the north near Bishkek to join the rest of the volunteers for 3 more weeks of training.
Questions about Life in Kyrgyzstan
Do you live in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan?
No, I lived in a comfortable house in the village, and now that I’m in Osh, live in an extremely comfortable house in the city. Every PCV has a different experience and rarely what they expected, and nothing about my experience thus far has been what I expected. Nothing!
Where does someone get condoms in Kyrgyzstan?
Firstly, good question. Secondly, yes the asker of this question was a dude. The answer for a PCV is that PC medical supplies us with very well packed medical kits, and condoms is among the good stuff. And if/when you run out, you can request more from medical and they send more to you, for free, no questions asked. Just make sure to check the expiration date, because as a wise woman (me) once said “there is nothing more depressing than an expired condom”. We also get all kinds of meds for less sexy issues like diarrhea and athletes foot.
Is Kyrgyzstan fun or downright creepy?
While I do not see those two things as being mutually exclusive, or the latter as being necessarily negative, KStan is pretty awesome. I have met some amazing people and already built some phenomenal relationships. I totally fell in love with my PST host family and am already getting there with my current Osh family. The mountains are beautiful, it doesn’t rain that much, and it’s a generally pretty safe place to be. And yes, I have had a lot of fun already, probably too much and should have been studying more, but I passed that language exam, so I’m doing just fine!
What do sheep intestines taste like?
Like what you would imagine they do. Don’t imagine it though, you probably won’t like it.
Have you seen the dead goat game yet?
No, not yet, but when I do, there will be an entire blog devoted to it. And if you don’t know what the dead goat game is yet, oh, you will. Just wait. (I did see the dead goat game a year later, and here is the blog on [intlink id=”1305″ type=”post”]Horse Games in Kyrgyzstan[/intlink])
Well I think that’s more than enough from me today, I do hope that satisfies the more washed than me masses. And if you or someone you love has any questions about Kyrgyzstan, shoot me a message and I will do my best to either answer it truthfully or make up a rather convincing lie.