Friday, June 6, 2008

Community Based Tourism and My Newest Job
As strange as it may seem, I actually work in the tourism industry here in Kyrgyzstan. My organization, Altyn Kol, makes shirdaks (felt carpets) and other handicrafts to sell to tourists so they can remember their trip to the “Switzerland of Central Asia” (I’ve heard it more than one place, so it must be true. And now it’s on the internet, so it is doubly true). In addition to my formal role in the industry, to quote Sly and the Family Stone, “It’s a Family Affair.”
My family works for an organization called Community Based Tourism (CBT). CBT’s business plan is quite simple: use local people to provide the tourism services necessary to attract people to the region. A nonprofit organization, CBT gives 82% of the money it earns directly to its service providers. Kochkorites provide housing, transportation, guided tours, and food to those who come through the area. My family fits into all of these areas: our house is a guesthouse; my brother Nurdin drives people to beautiful Lake Song Kol; my brother Azamat takes tourists on treks through the area mountains; and my mom cooks for anyone who stays with us.
Funny enough, I have picked up a job myself: translator. I never quite realized the ubiquity of the English language until I came to Kyrgyzstan. No matter where the tourists are from, at least one of them speaks more than respectable English. Since my host brother Azamat is still in Bishkek finishing his first year of university, I have become the family’s resident English speaker. The tourists enjoy having a fluent speaker in the house, but I don’t think they quite realize I don’t exactly how to translate their needs into Kyrgyz. I usually just do whatever it is they need done.
I do admit that the one thing that one learns first in this language environment is how to express needs, especially simple ones like hunger and thirst, likes and dislikes, and how to gather simple information. Since these are the primary concerns of most tourists, I seem like a natural, dare I say fluent translator. Little do they know, if they asked almost any question outside of the three aforementioned categories, I would probably just have to lie to them.
So far, we have had some really interesting guests (we call them “konoktor” instead of “tourist-ter” so they don’t know we are talking about them). Our first big group of the year was actually a group employed by Land Rover to drive from London to Singapore. They were a pretty cool group of Brits, I must say. We’ve had a couple of French tourists and Erin’s family has had people from America, Slovakia, and, believe it or not, Kyrgyzstan. From what the CBT director tells us, most of the tourists that stay in Kochkor are from France. I guess I should start polishing up French!

The Political Race

I’ve avoided writing about the whole US political situation for several reasons. First of all, I don’t really know a whole lot about exactly what is going on over there. Most of my information comes third hand from volunteers or it is translated from Russian into Kyrgyz and then I attempt to understand it. Second, half the reason I joined the Peace Corps was to avoid this whole election cycle and, from what it sounds like, I made the right decision. Third, I’m sure Peace Corps will use this article against me at some point in the future, regardless of what I actually write.
With Sen. Obama apparently wrapping up the Democratic nomination, I figured now would be a good time to talk about what exactly it is people over here think about the whole process in the United States. To be sure, the Democratic primaries received the lion’s share of the press here. The thing that fascinated most Kyrgyz people I talked to was that either a woman or a black man was going to be President (the whole idea of primaries is a little lost on the people here. Sen. John McCain obviously could keep our remarkable string of 43 straight white old guys alive.). Though it is a bit strange that it is the first thing someone will mention during the discussion, the Kyrgyz people seem extremely open to the idea. One gentleman told me he liked Clinton because Margaret Thatcher brought down Communism and set the Kyrgyz Republic free from the Soviets (a bit revisionist, but interesting).
So, now the stage is set for a McCain-Obama showdown. Most people here have never heard of Sen. McCain, but I think that will change. The Russian news does about ten minutes worth of U.S. news every week, so as the campaign heats up, I’m sure they will be introduced to the man. I am interested to see what kind of light they shine on Sen. McCain. He has been very tough on Russia in the past and the press here is anything but objective.
For those of you interested, through a very unscientific poll, I would estimate that Obama would carry all of PC-Kyrgyzstan’s electoral votes with a District of Colombia-like 90%. I am just happy that I get to participate in a system where my vote doesn’t matter, since my place of residence (Arizona) made up its mind who to vote for roughly four months ago. And yet life goes on.

Summer: The anti-inspiration

Though I know that summer does not officially start for a couple more weeks, things have taken on the tale tell signs of that glorious time of year here in Kochkor. The children are out of school and bugging me to know end (seriously, when I find the teacher who taught them the word “money,” I might do something very un-Peace Corpsesque). Tourists have started passing through town, asking questions that make one feel proud to live here (“Are there any flush toilets around here?”) and at the same time tired of the tourists themselves (“I don’t understand why they don’t just spend some money and build toilets.”). Best of all, the days have gotten much longer and the weather much nicer. My days are filled with sunshine and warm breezes. I don’t even mind all the newly appearing bugs.
With all that said, all I want to do is sit outside and read a book. The grass is so green I just have to lay in it while eating raspberries (we have them, but they are pricy). The last thing I want to do is go to work, be trapped in some building, trying to convince my co-workers that my ideas might actually help them. I never believed in that whole “Spring Fever” idea until now. I don’t know how many more 4 hour work days I can handle in this beautiful weather and its only going to get worse.
In about a week our summer interns will be arriving from Naryn and for some crazy reason I have committed myself to full, eight hour work days with these four young ladies. I still have no idea what exactly I was thinking, but I am regretting it already. In all seriousness, I am excited about their arrival. I am terribly anxious to be doing something truly productive at work. Being eye candy just gets old after a while.
With all of this talk, I would like to wish everyone who reads this a safe summer season. From what I hear, nobody will be driving anywhere due to gas prices, but remember that safety is just as important at home as it is on the road. As an end note, I would like to have some comments posted about this year’s “annoying summer song that you cannot get out of your head.” I believe last year’s was “Umbrella” by Rihanna (spelling?). Year before, I’m pretty sure Shakira won with “Hips Don’t Lie” (An awesome song. I tried to convince my brother Nurdin, age 22, that I would be marrying Shakira upon my completion of service. The reason he didn’t believe me? I don’t speak Spanish). Things don’t always translate straight over here, so I’m interested to hear what you guys are being tortured with over there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Buildin’ a Yurt

The yurt is the traditional housing for the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. In ancient times, the Kyrgyz would move with their flocks from pasture to pasture and they needed a mobile dwelling that would not only keep them warm during the harsh winters, but would be easy to set up and take down with regularity. There felt and wood construction materials are all readily available in the mountains and it requires no tools whatsoever. They are actually a fascinating feat of engineering.

Soviet-occupation led to a decline, but not an elimination of, yurt usage. People moved into urban areas (often against their will) and there was less need for moveable dwellings. The yurt is still used commonly today for people who take their flocks out to summer pasture (known as “jailoo”) or for tourism purposes. My family uses it for the latter in the summer.

Last week we built our family yurt and it was just as much fun as someone who doesn’t speak the language fluently can have on a construction site. The first step is to build the circular base of the yurt which eventually becomes the walls of the dwelling. The next, and most entertaining, part of the construction process is the raising of the “tunduk”(pictured). The tunduk is raised by hoisting it up with a chopped down tree and then placing support beams into it and then securing them to the circular base. The resulting structure forms the frame of the yurt (pictured).

Once the frame is built the yurt is wrapped in a series of thick felt blankets that serve as protection from the wind and the cold. The final step requires placing one final blanket on top of the tunduk that can be removed to let the sun in, let smoke out, and keep the inside protected from the rain. The tunduk is considered to be a almost holy part of Kyrgyz tradition. The tunduk is so important that it is actually the center of the Kyrgyz Republic’s flag.

Anyway, the event was fun. It took five grown men and a boy over six hours to complete the project and it was interesting to say the least. I discovered that whenever a dad, anywhere, builds something, he is required to use an insane amount of swear words in order to make it work. It appears that some things are the same in every country.

So, our family has not completely moved into the yurt, but we do spend most of our time inside. We ran a couple of electrical cords into the yurt so we have a TV and even a light. We eat dinner there every night and my two host brothers sleep inside of it now. All part of livin’ the dream.

Bob Dylan won a freakin' Pulitzer!

Judging from the fact that my only sponsor (and I use that word lightly) is Manas Petroleum, I assume that most of my readership is of the age that they not only know Bob Dylan, but know a little bit about his heyday from personal experience. Even my 18-25 year old demographic should know a thing or two about America’s Greatest Living Poet (according to me) from some of the awesome albums he has put out in the past few years. If you haven’t bought Modern Times, you seriously need to, no matter what your taste in music. It even has a song from a Victoria’s Secret commercial in it!

Long story short, I love Bob Dylan and apparently so does the Columbia University School of Journalism, who recently awarded him the Pulitzer Prize for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture.” He is the first rock artist to receive such an honor. According to Sig Gissler, the administrator of the program, “He has had a great impact on both music and culture. His compositions have a powerful poetic quality to them that I think helped set him apart.”

Not really much else to say about it. I just want everybody to know how awesome Bob Dylan is and you should all go out and buy a couple of his albums. Immediately.

The End of English Classes...

Some of you may know that Erin and I have been teaching English classes here in beautiful Kochkor for about six months now. I have to admit that it has been a godsend: I am pretty sure I would have succumb to boredom if I didn’t have a full 5 hours of teaching every week during the winter months. If you include lesson planning and walking to the class, it consumed almost 12 hours a week. It doesn’t seem like much, but I needed the little escape during those brutal months. I probably couldn’t have made it without them.

The class started simply, with a couple of drivers for Community Based Tourism (CBT), a nonprofit organization that gives tours and guesthouses to tourists visiting the area. They also happened to be all related to my director, which is probably how the class came about in the first place. It wasn’t too long before we started branching out and by the end of January we had expanded to over ten students in our beginner class and five in our advanced. Though many of the faces would change each week, we had a solid core group that came regularly and enjoyed our innovative teaching style (like no yelling or reading from a book). That group remained pretty consistent until about mid-April.

Then the spring came. People all of a sudden had gardens to plant, errands to run, and tourists to drive and they could not fit our little ol’ class into the schedule. After a month or so of smaller classes, we decided to put the lessons on a break until the other side of summer, allowing people to go about their summer rituals in peace. We only hope that we made a difference.

What did we teach, you ask? Nothing to complicated, though I will admit I learned more about English in teaching than I ever did in studying. We went over a lot of common phrases to help the drivers work with tourists on a basic level (“Do you need…?”) and eventually got to the point where students could handle verbs in present, simple past, simple future, and present continuous (I am running) with some amount of confidence.

I must admit that English is an incredibly complicated language and I never realized how much so until now. Word order is so incredibly important that it can completely change the meaning of a sentence (“I just ate a sandwich” vs. “I ate just a sandwich” are two completely different sentences!). It took a lot of discipline to consistently use the same tense and word order when giving examples. I did get better at it toward the end, though I am far from a pedagogical master.

In the final analysis, it was well worth the effort. Three of our students took us to lunch after our last class, which was unexpected and well received. I truly hope that most of them will come back to our class when we start up again in September.

Introducing Dwight K. Schrute…

I want to start off by thanking everyone who submitted names for our family’s newest member, the baby cow pictured below. The interest not only let me know whether anybody was actually reading this thing besides my immediate family members, and gave me some great ideas for the naming of the calf. I figured I would give a small cross-section of the names and explain why I liked them. If your entry is not listed, it isn’t because I didn’t like it. Results may vary from culturally insensitive to way too hard to explain to my host family in Kyrgyz (though I do admit the winner has been difficult to get across).

Fifth-Jagerbek (Heeyong Wang). Though I admit it was very tempting to name the calf in the same fashion as every other man in this country (really, not an exaggeration with the “bek” thing), I couldn’t handle confronting my new friend on a daily basis when all he would do is remind me of that delicious black liqueur of my youth (early 20’s, mostly). The other large problem centered on a nickname and I couldn’t handle just calling him “bek.”

Fourth-Billy (Catherine O’Neill). I have to admit that the shout out to the alma mater was pretty tempting. I do admit I miss my Blue Jays quite terribly. I might have even gotten a picture in the Creightonian Magazine, assuming I was selling the cow in order to raise money for some new building or fountain or some crap. In the end, Billy is a girl and our calf is a boy, so I had to rule it out.

Third-Booger (Catherine O’Neill). This one made it up this far just because of the conversation I had with my host brother Aziz about boogers. Apparently, Kyrgyz doesn’t have a word for booger or at least Aziz didn’t want to admit to it. Snot is “chymkyryk.” We decided that possibly hard snot would have to do (katuu chymkyryk, for those keeping score at home). Neither of us had the guts to ask our mother (a Kyrgyz language teacher) what the possible word could be, so we abandoned the plan. I think “Booger” definitely got his vote though.

Second-Pork Chop (Auntie Inee). A few reasons for this one being so high. First, the fact that it is a cow named “Pork Chop” is quite lovely. Second, there are about a million nicknames that I could run with: Porkie, Chopie, PoCho (my favorite), Sir Chops-a-lot, Hammy, GWAS (Great With Apple Sauce). I was really close to going with this name, but two things kept me from it: they don’t eat pork here (Muslims abstain) and my host parents would think I was an idiot and feel the need to explain that beef comes from cows, not pork. It just wasn’t worth the conversation that I knew would entail.

First-McNugget (Catherine’s Roommate, Kristen). There are two things I enjoy more than almost anything on Earth: Bob Dylan and making fun of Irish people. This name had plenty of the second, but I couldn’t find any Dylan references to “nuggets.” If I had (and believe me I tried), this probably would have won out. Kristen, if you want to do the leg work, I only have about 15 Dylan albums and I think there are probably another 20 or so out there. If you find the maestro talkin’ ‘bout nuggets, let me know and I will reconsider the voting. (Ed. Note: Just in case any Irish people are reading this, I have no problem with Ireland and all my dislike for things Irish comes from personal contact with people of Irish lineage [they know who they are]. Seriously, when are people going to figure out that Ireland isn’t that cool? What have they done since Joyce? I guess at least they aren’t the poorest country in the EU anymore. Congrats.)

Winner- Dwight K. Schrute (Erin McFee). A few of you may have no idea what this is in reference to, so I will take the opportunity to extrapolate upon the greatest television show of our generation, The Office. Dwight is not the main character of the show, but he plays a vital role in almost every episode. I would compare him to something of a Kramer (from Seinfeld). He is physical in his comedy and provides the gut-busting moments that have made The Office an object of my obsession in Kyrgyzstan. I would probably speak way better Kyrgyz if I spent a little less time watching The Office DVDs (thanks Mom!) and a little more time talking to people. Anyway, Dwight is a bit of a cult icon in our village of 3 Americans and I can think of no better reason to bestow his name upon the calf. That, and Erin might get mad if I don’t.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

So, life is a bit busy

Well, spring is here and life is busy in Kochkor. My family and I have been working hard to get all that winter malaise out of the house and make it a happy place again.
With all that in mind, I would like to appologize for not writing more blog entries. All this yurt building, seminar and internship planning, and general availability of things to do has kept me away from the computer. I hope you all understand.
All of the above things above and more will be written about shortly, as soon as I have a chance. This week should be a good one, since all the women at work are working hard for our upcoming sales exhibition. Please, keep reading.

On a side note, some lucky readers will be receiving a small surprise in the mail soon. Good luck!

Monday, May 19, 2008


As most of you know, I work for a handicraft’s cooperative here in Kyrgyzstan which focuses primarily on the creation of shirdaks. I realized the other day when I was going through my previous blog entries that I have yet to dedicate an entire post to shirdaks and that such a travesty cannot stand uncorrected. Thus, get excited to enter the fascinating world of felt!

Shirdaks are, simply put, felt rugs and are perhaps the oldest and most traditional craft still produced in Kyrgyzstan. Due to the large number of sheep and a nomadic heritage that is not conducive to cotton growing, felt is the primary material used in traditional handicrafts within the country. Felt, which is made out of compacted sheep’s wool, is the primary ingredient in any real shirdak.

But how are they made, you ask? The process is quite simple, really. Once the sheep has been shaved and its wool pressed into felt (and possibly dyed), the master cuts it into an ornate pattern and then sows the design onto a larger, uncut piece of felt. After several hours of intense sowing and intricate stitching, a border is usually added to give some balance and depth to the piece.

Shirdaks come in all shapes and sizes. Originally, they were designed to cover the floor of the “yurt,” or portable home of the nomadic Kyrgyz. “Sadushkas” are roughly 50cm x 50cm (20x20 in) and are designed as seat covers. Giant, room size shirdaks can be up to 10m2. I have one in my room that is roughly 3m2. The felt design allowed for maximum heat storage during the cold winters of the old times. Today, they are more for decoration, but still hold a sacred place in the hearts of the Kyrgyz people.

And now the sales pitch: Where can you get one of these amazing items? Well, the best, most authentic shirdaks money can buy are for sale through my host organization, Altyn Kol (literally translated as “Golden Hands”). All of our shirdaks are made of 100% wool and are handmade by women in Kyrgyzstan. Roughly 70% of the sale price goes directly to the artisan, significantly higher than Fair Trade prices. If you are interested, click here to learn more and see what exactly you are missing.

Alright, got that done. I have to admit I have learned more about sowing and the processes involved in felt production than I ever thought possible. I remember when I joined Peace Corps they said I would learn practical skills that would make me extremely competitive in the current job market. I just hope carpet making is as big in the US as it is here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

10 Month Update

Hopefully, by the time I get this posted, I will have been in the ol’ Kyrgyz Republic for 10 months! Hard to imagine that it has almost been a year. I can’t say the time has flown by (I actually think it might have been frozen for a little while during the summer), but it does seem that time is keeping on, as it usually does. I have now experienced every season in country, though I still have quite a bit of spring left to enjoy before the death grip of summer comes back around. As always, here is a run of how things are going:

· I have successfully completed 39.13% (45 of 115 weeks), so basically 2/5 done. It seems odd to put it in such terms, but that’s the way it is. Seriously, you guys need to get this economy turned around or I will stay another year. I’ll do it, too. You know how people are when they get those cushy government jobs…

· I haven’t taken another language test, but I can assure you that I am easily within the top 0.008% of Kyrgyz speakers in the world (assuming 6.2 billion people worldwide and 5 million Kyrgyz people). The biggest problem, however, is that I am definitely in the bottom most percentile in my village, except for that one Russian guy who refuses to learn Kyrgyz and is quite proud of the fact.

· We have not had much of a loss of volunteers since the last bi-monthly report. As far as my group goes, we have only lost one person in the last two months. If I do my math right, that should bring us to an even 40.

· I bought a huge Peace Corps shirdak last month. If I remember, I will put a picture on the page. Outside of that, no major purchases of any interest. We got a pay raise last month of a whopping 40 som ($1.11), since Peace Corps found it necessary to differentiating the pay between those in villages and those in cities. So now, not only do the people in the cities actually have a choice of what they can buy, they can actually afford it now too.

· Still have not been the victim of a crime, but I am staying vigilant. If I remember my training correctly, this is the time of service it is most likely to happen, since I am getting comfortable in my site and not being as careful about things.

· My family is down to 3 cows, 2 sheep and 2 lambs. Our cat went missing and is presumed dead. I think that means I can get a chick now, though Peace Corps says I shouldn’t because of “bird flu.” All off our sheep went to pasture, except for one that is pregnant and another that is milking the two lambs. It is starting to get a little lonely, I must admit.

· My not throwing up in country streak has come to a terrible end. I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I want to remind everyone to remember not to mix alcohol and any kind of medication. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I don’t think I will ever make that mistake again.

· Holidays have been aplenty this April and May. Noroos was at the end of March and was alright. I was in Bishkek at the time, so I might have missed some of the fun. May 1 is International Workers’ Day; May 5 Constitution Day; and May 9 is Victory Day. Needless to say, I won’t get any work done until about June, so I guess I should give up on that front.

· I guess my luster is starting to wear off. Proposals for “daughter meeting” have dramatically fallen off. Maybe my strategy of telling people how I am actually not rich is starting to backfire. Now people have started asking about what I plan to do when I go back to America. When you really look at the question from their perspective, my status has changed from “I want him to marry my daughter” to “when is this guy leaving”? I guess that is what happens when people really get to know you

· I am still reading quite a bit, though not nearly at the level I was during the winter. An increase in my ability to communicate and to walk outdoors has dramatically reduced my time/desire for reading. As mentioned in a previous entry, I read a Chingiz Aitmatov book and enjoyed it. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald was really good. Currently reading a book on the history of the Soviet Union and Jude the Obscure. I really love endings where everybody dies, I guess. Having The Office Season 2 sent to me has not helped in inspiring me to read either.

On an unrelated note, say thank you to all of your teachers and people you know that are teachers. National Teachers Appreciation Week is this week (May 6-12). Sam, you are the only professional teacher that I know, so I guess I will say “I appreciate you” because there is no way I could do what you do. Seriously, little kids are gross.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Issky Kul

Lake Issyk Köl (“hot lake” in Kyrgyz) is considered to be the “pearl” of the Kyrgyz landscape. A salt water lake located in the country’s northeastern section, it is constantly a topic of discussion among Kyrgyz people. The “hot” part of the name comes from the fact that the lake never freezes, due to the saltiness of the water and geothermal springs located within the lakebed. In Kyrgyz, it is often referred to as just “Köl” since it is the only lake that matters (to some). One of the first questions that someone will ask me is whether I have been there yet or not. It is assumed that I will go or that I have been and Kyrgyz people often have a hard time believing I have been in country ten months and have yet to see the mighty Köl.
Legend has it the salty, warm lake was created out of love. In ancient times, the king of a particular tribe held a traditional matching ceremony for his daughter. The ceremony’s main event was a horse game in which suitors had to kiss the daughter in order to win her hand. The daughter could make the task difficult for men she did not like, easier for those who she did. A young shepherd entered the contest and the daughter put up little resistance to his pursuit. However, when the kind found out that the daughter was to marry a common shepherd (and not the prince from another tribe as he had hoped), he was furious and arranged a marriage with royalty of another tribe.
The day of the wedding came soon afterwards. The girl was so distraught over the loss of her love that she started crying. The crying didn’t stop and eventually salty, warm water began pouring out of her eyes at an incredible rate and eventually the flood washed away the entire wedding party, including the bride and left only a lake in its place. The shepherd, meanwhile, was watching the ceremony from afar and saw his love transform herself into a lake. In order to ensure that he could always be near and watch over her, he turned himself into the mountains that surround the lake.
The area on the lake’s north shore is the most developed in the country (not including Bishkek). Most of the property is foreign owned and developed and include world class health facilities that, if you can afford it, are home to breath taking views and western amenities. Most of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh elite have homes in this area that they use for summer vacations, including President Bakiev who also has a small yacht in the lake. Prices are not exactly American, but they are definitely higher than in just about any other region in the country.
This last weekend I visited the village of Cholpon Ata (star’s father) to see this lake for myself (and see my friend Brian who is stationed there). I do admit that I was impressed. It is a beautiful area and, while it is certainly far from western standards, it is certainly much more advanced from an infrastructure perspective. The beaches are not the white sands of Hawaii, but are comfortable. The water is an amazingly crystal blue that takes a little while to believe in. It isn’t tourist season yet, so I was able to enjoy the area without the hustle and bustle I am assured places a stranglehold on the area in July and August…And shit was really, really expensive.
Note: The picture above is not from Issyk Kul, but from right here in Kochkor. I just figured this blog needed a picture. Those are my site mates Erin and Vanessa.