August 7, 2008
I bathe pretty much everyday. Some may be thinking, “so what… I do too,” however, it’s not quite that simple. We don’t have running hot water, we only have a single water spicket for the house, and (luckily) unlike some other families in the village, we have not had our water turned off for days at a time (at least not while I’ve been here). Three of the other volunteers in the same village have had the joy of walking out to one of the communal wells to pump water and then lug buckets of it back to their respective houses. This would not be fun in the blazing heat of the Kyrgyz summer.
There are two ways to bathe (that I have seen) here. One is the sun shower, or in Russian, душ (pronounced douche). Yup, it’s pronounced just like the infamous cleaning tool for women. The sun shower is fantastic. Imagine a 2’ x 2’ shower stall, now make the walls of said stall out of leather, the floor out of wooden slats covered with a plastic mat (sagging a bit) and have this stall maybe six inches above ground level, with a small six inch deep square hole underneath it. On top of this glorious box is a large black barrel out of the bottom of which comes a very short hose and a spickt (the hose and spicket go directly through the roof of the shower and into the stall itself). The water that we pump into the barrel above is done through simple water pressure, and the water itself is heated by the sun during the day.
The sun shower may sound dirty to some, but let me tell you, this thing is fantastic. When you’ve gone an entire day in the 95 degree heat without any A/C in any buildings, taking crowded bus rides to other cities, drinking hot tea and eating hot food, you’ll love it. And thinking about them from an efficiency standpoint, there’s no beating them. There’s no drainage system required (or in place in my town), all waste water goes into the ground below the shower (this may or may not be environmentally friendly). And the water is heated by the sun, which is very important due to the rising cost of fuels such as gasoline, coal and propane. I know for a fact that coal, the cheapest of the three, is beyond the reach (economically speaking) of most village folks, and therefore, the majority of the country.
If you’re looking for a morning shower equivalent, I give you the баня (pronounced baña, from here on out, “bana”). The bana is not a shower. It’s really more of a sauna. The room is rectangular, about 8’ wide by 6’ deep. On the left side of the room is a two foot wide by three feet tall by six feet deep box shaped thing. I’m really not sure what to call it. In this box are two large, maybe two feet in diameter and one foot deep woks. Well, they’re not actually woks, they’re just shaped like the part of the wok in which you cook. One of the woks is filled with water and the other has a bunch of large rocks in it. Now to heat the room, a fire is lit in the rest of that box thing on the left side of the bana. This both heats up the room like a sauna, but also heats the water and rocks (onto which water can be thrown to create a steam room). In my particular bana, there is also a picnic table on which to sit, and as in all banas, there are basins of cold water. The hot water and the cold water is then mixed in a basin to get the desired temperature.
During the winter, the bana is the only way to get really clean. I’ve heard of volunteers who bought small boiling plates on which to heat water (for semi-daily sponge baths) and others who have just not bathed in between banas (which I hear are once weekly). In my household, we burn trash to heat up the bana (there is no garbage collection, so this is very efficient), and right now the family is in the process of collecting and storing wood etc… for use in the winter. We also have a huge pile of cow dung in the backyard. I assume that will be used to heat something this winter, I just don’t know what.
So that’s bathing. I use the sun shower almost every day, and love it. I’ve taken a few banas when the trash pile has built up, and they’re pretty awesome, especially when you decide to throw some water on the rocks and just melt in the steam for a while. Oh, and don’t drop the soap. While you won’t get greeted prison style when bent over, you will get a bar of soap that both cleanses and scrubs your skin.
August 7, 2008
Hurray! Today is my one month anniversary in country.
I can now hold a basic conversation in Russian with my family. I can talk about ages, jobs, hobbies, favorite sports, names, ages, where they live, water language they speak and tons of other stuff around the house. I’m not so great at having philosophical debates, although I suppose if I knocked someone in the teeth they’re understand my highly nuanced position on the topic at hand. Sign language is still necessary for some things, but I can pretty much always say what I want/need/am thinking without issue (despite grammatical flaws).
An example: My host mother’s sister came over to our house. She was pretty upset because someone who had come to visit her from Turkey (my host mom is Turkish) had lost her luggage or it was stolen. My host mother and she were talking about how to get the luggage back. It was clear neither of them were frequent fliers, and since my host father (who works in Russia and so travels a lot) was out, I was definitely the most knowledgeable person I the room. Well, there was no way I was going to be able to explain to them what to do in Russian, so out came the props. I went to my room, grabbed a suitcase I brought from home, a plane ticket, and then made the tags they put on bags when they’re checked and the tag they give each flier as a receipt. I proceeded to mime giving your bag to the airport, and then picking it up after wards. I then showed them how there is security here in Kyrgyzstan that requires you to show your receipt and verify that you are not stealing luggage before taking it from the luggage pickup area. And when they asked whether the luggage was “in the computer” I told them yes, that the airport should be able to associate every piece of luggage with the passenger who checked it.
So I got my point across using pantomiming and the words “airport, give bags to airport, you have number, bag has number, you show number to him in airport, he looks at numbers.” I don’t know airport specific Russian, and I don’t plan on learning any until the next time I get on an airplane (which won’t be for at least the next five months, that’s company policy).
So today was my one month anniversary, but it was really just another day. I had language classes all morning, technical training on how to teach in the afternoon and then I took a nap and studied after that. Oh, and I watched my host brother feed the dogs (who want to rip out my throat, because that’s just how they’re bred) and observed as my host mom milked our cow. I think I like cows. They’re relaxed. I’m pretty relaxed. Maybe cows and I can be friends.
Note: Let me know if anyone knows whether English or Russian is harder to learn (I’ve heard it go both ways from locals here, so I’d like to know if anyone is certain).
August 25, 2008
My Host Family (in brief)
I live with a host family here in country. The father is Tartar, the mother is Turkish and they have sons aged 16 and 17. It may seem strange to tell their ethnicities since both are definitely white and live in Kyrgyzstan, but here in country, ethnicity is a big deal. My host mother does not call herself Kyrgyz, those are the asian peoples who have lived in this general region for a long time. Although just because the person is Asian in appearance doesn’t mean he or she is Kyrgyz. The individual might also be Dungan (Muslim Chinese), Uzbek, Korean or any of many other Asian peoples living in this country. So my host mother is Turkish, but has lived in Kyrgyzstan her whole life (I think). My host father is Tartar and holds a Russian passport. He is not Russian, he is Tartar. My host brothers are obviously a mix of Turkish and Tartar, but I’m pretty sure that they technically take on the fathers ethnicity despite the fact that they both look much more Turkish than Tartar.
While I’ve been living with this family, my host father has only been in the house for about three weeks. Since the collapse of the USSR, wages have declined, jobs have left the country along with the many highly educated professionals who used to live here, the price of food stuffs has increased dramatically, buildings are decaying and life is good. My host father is well educated. He is a veterinarian. Unfortunately the work that he can find here is little, and the pay is bad (considering his skills). Although he’s not the only person who is poorly paid, I’ve heard that doctors are usually bribed by patients (despite the free socialized medicine system) because they actually can’t live off their government salaries. This also goes for teachers. So the teachers are leaving , the doctors are taking flight, and my host father only comes back because his family is here (otherwise I believe that he would have left Kyrgyzstan for good a while back).
From what I knew of him during his short time here, my host father is strict, he is an upright citizen, he is beloved by all our neighbors (Note: as best I can tell, neighbor means anyone living in the same village) and he is feared/respected by his sons. Every morning I get up around 7:15am, and he’s usually already been up and working since around 6 or 6:30. Around 7:30 or 8am it’s always time to yell at the lazy children to get up. Whenever I saw my host father, he was either working around the house or entertaining guests (they seemed to line up). Except for the whole get up early bit, which would have killed me at ages 16 and 17, he’s an all around good guy.
My host mother is a plump five foot tall woman with the loudest voice ever. She is always laughing and joking around with me. While I refuse to share some of the jokes we tell each other because they are usually inappropriate, but we also talk about how to manage her teenage sons. I find that having just been one, I know how to manipulate them indirectly by telling my mama what not to do. An example. Sunday morning she was yelling at them to get up at 9am to eat breakfast, take the cow out to pasture etc… Someone showed up at the gate door, banging loudly and ringing the bell, asking for one of them. My host mama starts to get up, and I tell her not to. It’s so easy, we’ve just let our visitor wake the kids up and force them to move about. Which leads me to a quick side note about knocking on doors here; people never seem to quit. I’ve never been somewhere that after 5 minutes of knocking loudly and yelling at the front door, they haven’t given up. In fact, I don’t think I have yet heard anybody give up, they just get louder and louder. Anyway, my host mom and I talk a lot, joke a lot, laugh a lot. And laughter is important when life is so tough.
Gender roles determine that women in this society do all the house work. They cook and clean up afterwards, they wash, hang and iron the clothes, they clean the house, they make the winter jams and pickles and sometimes they also work. Oh, and if you happen to be the women who has most recently married into the man’s family, you are expected to do all that stuff for everyone you live with (the newlyweds usually move into the husbands’ parents’ house).
My host brothers are pretty similar. They both don’t really listen to their mom when their dad isn’t around, but at the end of the day they do what they’re told. I talk to my younger brother more than the older one, probably because the older one goes out at night to (this is supposition) chase girls, maybe drink a little, and otherwise do typical teenage things. So my other host brother and I will usually watch a little TV together. Today I shared a whole bunch of music with my younger host brother. Bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Dave Matthews were of no interest to him, while other artists such as Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and other pop stars were to his liking. While I could not satisfy his needs for pop music except for the newer Justin Timberlake, I did give him his first taste of alternative music, even though he didn’t like it. Oh well, people here only like the pop music cause it has good beat.
My brothers take care of all the heavy labor around the house. When their father was around, he would also do that kind of work, but with him gone, there’s nobody else to do it. So I’ve seen my brothers hauling and chopping wood for the winter, mucking out the cow stable, wrestling the cows into the stable (I’ve helped, those big guys are strong), and harvesting the garden (mostly potatoes). Watching and occasionally helping them with the heavy labor has made it exceptionally clear to me why farm boys are so strong. Forcing uncooperative animals to do your bidding all day long is not easy.
August 26, 2008
My Spare Time
My spare time is mostly spent studying Russian and talking to my host family, although I do find time to go have a beer with friends and use the internet about once a week. There are other things I could be doing like reading books, doing crossword puzzles, trying to actually finish a Sudoku or playing video games. However, I have found that just studying Russian and speaking it has helped me improve my speaking ability dramatically in a short period of time (I’m sure having a great language teacher for four hours a day can’t hurt). I usually spend about an hour to an hour and a half per day studying vocab, although I don’t study the way people traditionally study. My studying does not consist of my cloistering myself. It usually means that I sit in the TV room with one of my host brothers while he watches MTV (I also watch about half the time). This is definitely the most relaxing way to study, a little Russian and a little rap, Kyrgyzstan’s youth’s favorite American export.
Wednesdays are beer and internet days! After having meetings all day in a nearby large town, I go to the nearest internet café to send my pre-written emails and post my latest blog entries. This means that if I forget my handy usb, nothing will get posted online and no emails will get much of a response. I just don’t have time to answer everyone’s emails in an indepth fashion without spending altogether too much time. After my short time online, it’s time to go get a beer. This is the time when I bond with trainees (I am still a trainee) who do not live in my village. Without beer time, I probably wouldn’t know many of them very well, and even with weekly beer outings, people still tend to group together (although everyone is still friendly and open to everyone else… we have to be, we’re all probably going to be together for the next two years).
My only day off is Sunday. Sometimes I go to other villages to visit friends, other times I just hangout and watch a bootleg DVD we’ve just bought from the local bazaar for six bucks (six bucks is cheap in America, but considering we currently get about $60 per month, it’s a serious purchase). Last week I watched Walle, and it was awesome (good call Firas). If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you check it out. While I have no idea how it would look on the big screen, it seemed pretty good on my 18” laptop screen and my weak sauce speakers.
August 27, 2008
Trying out different peoples’ outhouses is a fun activity. At my house, the toilet gets a rank of poor. My toilet is a sauna when it’s warm and sunny. It’s a normal looking outhouse; door, three sides and a roof, rectangular, has a wooden floor with a hole in it. However, there is a major design flaw, namely, the walls are very thin sheet metal. On warm days, the thing is so hot that when you close the door the flies flee the heat. This is quite unusual as the flies seem to truly enjoy the strong ammonia scent and warmth of fresh feces. One volunteer commented (not about my particular toilet) that he had seen a movie in which some actor seduced and had sex with a woman in the outhouse; that scene must’ve been ridiculous. After spending just five minutes in my outhouse I leave the place smelling like outhouse, and there is nothing sexy about that oh so fresh scent (unless you enjoy the mild scent of stale poop and urine on your clothes).
Oh, I almost forgot to talk about the seat. We have a removable seat. Imagine a handmade wooden square with four legs attached (not all the exact same length) with a toilet seat on top. Now imagine that this toilet seat had been wrapped in some sort of burlap or twine from what was most likely once a bag used to carry produce. Now at the back of this seat, not on the seat itself but on the wooden square just below it, imagine dried poop. What can I say, it seems that I am not the only person who had some trouble adjusting to the food in this country. Do I use this seat? Hell yes! I either use the seat or squat. Squatting is quite tiring, and I constantly worry about whether I will miss the whole or fall in. Neither thought is too comforting, so I stick to my dirty toilet seat. Yea, and the human waste comes up to about a foot and a half below the wooden floor boards. Hurray my outhouse!
Some of my friends have much nicer outhouses. My friend Shawn’s outhouse is maybe on the same level as mine, it’s a tossup really. She has no seat at all, but the walls of her outhouse are wood (cooler), however those wooden boards have nice centimeter wide gaps between them but the poop level is much lower. Overall, I think mine may be a bit better than hers because there is privacy and a seat, and while you may worry a bit about splash back when using my outhouse, I’ve never had that problem.
Jonathan’s outhouse is amazing. Not only does he have a comfy seat made of some styrofoam type material, but there is a map of the world pasted to the ceiling, a window on the door (one way), a latch (yes, his locks), and you can’t see the poop below! This is truly a wonderful pooping experience. And I’ve also heard from my friend Lee, whose house I have not been to, that his NEW outhouse still smells like fresh wood and that the hole under it is so deep (8ft-ish) that there are no worries of splash back and no flies! I really want to see this outhouse.
Then, at the very top of the bathroom/outhouse pyramid are the typical western and the nice porcelain not so western ones. You all know exactly what a western bathroom looks like. The porcelain not so western ones are still squatters, but after using the outhouses of private citizens, they’re like little shrines. These porcelain things can best be described as bedays set in the floor with places to put your feet on either side. The beday like thing and the foot holds are all one piece of porcelain. At the one end of the beday you will see a hole with some water in it (it looks exactly like the exit hole in a western toilet… and the water level would be the same as in a western toilet after you have flushed and before it has started to refill again). I honestly don’t think I can describe how amazing seeing and using one of these things is after spending so much time without. And ladies, don’t forget TP because it’s almost never provided. Oh, and germ-a-phobes, bring your own evaporating hand sanitizer because most places don’t have soap or towels either.
Saving the worst for last means that now we talk about school outhouses! These just straight up suck. You may have thought that the restrooms in your public high schools or fraternity houses were nasty, but they really weren’t that bad. School outhouses are small cinder block buildings with 5 or so holes lined up in a row. There are no separators, they are never cleaned, they have window and door openings but no windows or doors (this will be brutal in the winter), despite the free passage of air they smell bad as soon as you enter, and every hole has it’s own special scent. I’ve only ever used these bathrooms while school has not been in session, by myself, and never during inclement weather. Perhaps when I teach I’ll learn extreme bladder control.
So those are the pooping places of Kyrgyzstan. Luckily for me I’m not squeamish when using outhouses, so I have had no trouble using the various outhouses I have encountered.