Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

Back to America

Sunday, February 28 2010. 7AM

At 1:40 PM, Saturday February 27 2010, I returned to America.  2 and a half years since I was last here – a few days longer to the day.  Since then, I’ve been trying to make sense of what it means to return to America.  Immediately, I’ve been organizing my stuff.  Driving to Heathrow, it struck me how much stuff “we” accumulate.  20 minutes of road is lined with huge storage container facilities.  People – particularly in America and Western Europe – have a lot of stuff.  Then, I returned home and find our house covered in things I shipped home from my Central Asia.  It’s all beautiful, but still a lot.  The next few days will involve a lot of rummaging and figuring out what exactly I intended to do with everything.

Yesterday, we drove straight home from the airport, except for a short stop at New York Bagel.  My first bagel and salmon cream cheese in two and a half years.  West Bloomfield looks pretty much the same.  Orchard Lake Road is lined with unwalkable stores, there are no babushkas selling fresh jam, fruit, and vegetables on the street, stores are big, and everyone speaks English.  The next few days will be interesting.  I miss everyone from KZ, from my travels – but it’s nice to be back, to be with my family, and to not be living out of a suitcase for a while.

*** Although I’m back in America, I realize I haven’t posted my thoughts or pictures of a large portion of my travels.  More updates from the last three months coming soon.

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February 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on the Caucuses

Thursday, February 25 2010
Flight from Yerevan, Armenia to London, England
There is still much more to describe about Central Asia, but as the Caucasian part of the trip has most immediately concluded, I’ll try for a more timely update first.

A quick diversion.  As I was writing the above, the “fasten seat belts” sign went off and every one around me quickly stood up, grabbed their laptops, bags, and blankets, and readjusted to empty seats.  As we were on the runway, just after an announcement from our pilot that we may be departing 10 minutes early, he announced that due to the air traffic controller strike in Paris, we can’t depart until 37 minutes after the hour – a delay of 17 minutes.  This did not sit well with the man across the aisle.  He scoffed, complaining to his wife (or girlfriend who he went on to make-out with throughout the 17 minutes).  This will be a fun transition.

Back to the Caucasus.  It’s unfair to both Central Asia and the Caucasus to compare them.  They have unique history, culture, geography, people – but, as I spent the last three months traipsing across both regions – I will do this unjust thing.

One of the most noticeable differences is the size.  Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) are huge.  Due to the mountains and the width of the country, it is close to impossible to cross any of the countries in one day, particularly by marshutka.  In Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia a taxi or marshutka can get almost anywhere in the country within a day.

Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but stepping into Georgia, I crossed into the first Christian country on the journey.  Central Asia and Azerbaijan aren’t particularly observant, but I became very used to hearing the call to prayer throughout the day.  Georgia and Armenia do not include this snippet of life.

Generally (except on one marshutka to a church in Armenia), public transportation in the Caucuses is not nearly as crowded as Central Asia.  In Aktobe, I became comfortable with being on a bus where there were no air molecules separating me and other passengers.  In the Caucuses, there generally seems to be space to breath on public transportation.

In Central Asia, passengers and the drivers would often say a short prayer before leaving on a trip – in all forms of transportation: taxis, shared cars, marshutkas.  As Muslims, this was clearly a Muslim prayer.  Christian Georgians do the same thing – only   also cross themselves and offer a slightly different prayer – same intent.  I didn’t see this in Armenia.

Prayer clothes are tied on trees throughout the region near shrines.  Roadside markers lie on the sides of all roads where someone died.  Most drivers would have failed drivers ed.  Everyone is amazed with the unusually warm Winter.

Everyone holds stereotypes, strong opinions, pride, and their versions of history.

Food is good and I was served a lot – again and again.

I encountered robust hospitality, kindness, and a desire for me to enjoy myself and learn about the culture in each country.  I was met in Azerbaijan by a good friend of my parents’ friend – he made my experience in Azerbaijan worthwhile and wonderful.  I wouldn’t have seen even half of what I did in those two weeks, ate nearly as well, or made gained a good friend and new relatives if not for him.  In Armenia, I was hosted by the relatives of Kazakhstani Armenian friends – my stomach and heart are still full from how great those two weeks were.  We traveled, ate, I gained more new relatives, and toured parts of the country outside of Lonely Planet – and I got more interesting stories about the sites.  My friends‘ friends and people I met in Tbilisi also made me eat and drink more than I thought I could handle – but it was all so tasty.  Whenever anyone goes to Tbilisi for the first, they tend to immediately fall in love with the city.  My love comes not just from the buildings and the ambience but particularly from my first guesthouse and my new friends – and chachapuri.

In addition to friends of friends, relatives of friends, and absolute strangers not related to any friends or family (to my knowledge), Peace Corps Volunteers (and EVS people in Georgia) have been particularly outstanding.  PCVs in each country (Central Asia and the Caucuses) hosted me and friends, showed us around, and made us feel at home.

Thank you to everyone who hosted me, fed me, ate with me, drank with me, tried to teach new languages, showed me around, connected me with friends and acquaintances, and put-up with me when I thought I had appendicitis.

Even people who know better – Couchsurfers, backpackers, PCVs, Fulbrighters – ask “which country do you like the most”.  There’s no answer to that question.  Each were great in their ways, and each have their uncomfortable parts.

As I’m sitting on the plane at the moment eating lunch – this post is very much a stram of consciousness.  I will miss natural food.  The last two and half years I’ve eaten largely (though not entirely) unprocessed meat, juice, fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk products, and bread – I don’t seem to remember that exists in as great of quantities in the US.  Fortunately, there was still Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, and candy to remind me of processing and artificial flavors across my travels.

February 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Airports and Country #2: Kyrgyzstan

The Dushanbe airport is a mess.  It appears that out of all the aid money the country is receiving, very little has gone to airport infrastructure or training – or, if it has, someone is doing a very poor job.  I quickly discovered that the way to determine where international departures is located is not any sign (as there are no visible signs) but from the crowd of people huddled in a large clump outside a two-door entrance, where only one door opens.  Unfortunately, since the clump of people is so tightly packed, the door can only by people jamming themselves through all at once, while at the same time having their ID checked by an overwhelmed security guard.

Once you get through this first border point, you wait in a short line for the x-ray scanner.  This section was more of a line, as there is not that much space to clump.  After x-ray, you move to check-in, another opportunity for clumping.  Check-in was pretty smooth, but then we moved to Border Control.  The security guards sporadically came around to turn the globs of people into Kindergarden-straight lines, waiting behind the red marking – but also moved certain people to the front of lines or simply didn’t see as people decided to jump in front of the line, to join the place of their friend or relative who was “holding the spot” for them.  The flight itself on Tajik Air and arrival into Bishkek was very smooth.

Unlike the Dushanbe airport, the Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan airport is a model of efficiency.  While I had to wait about 20 minutes for a border officer to arrive in order to purchase my visa (available upon arrival at the airport), once she got there, it took 5 minutes.  Customs was quick, and a taxi into the city was the price my friends told me.

I really liked Bishkek.  A number of friends from Kazakhstan warned me that it’s dangerous, not so interesting, small, and Soviet.  While I didn’t have any problems, I don’t doubt the dangerous part – particularly is walking around at night.  There are lots of parts of the city with no public lighting and a good number of parks and streets with few people.  Immediately upon arriving, however, I met a number of friends of friends who very quickly became my good friends.  Bishkek has a much more expansive restaurant and bar scene than Dushanbe, along with a good art scene.  The first evening, we went to an interesting show put on by the progressive theater company.  A few days later, we went to a beautiful concert at the Opera House – in between, lots of food, drinks, and museums.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Jewish Dushanbe and Lots of Food

The Tajik Jewish community was never large, but it is now down to very low numbers, due to emigration and the Civil War, in addition to normal aging.  Tajikistan has a mix of Ashkenazi Jews who were relocated to the area during Stalin-times, and Bukharan Jews, having spread to Tajikistan from nearby Uzbkekistan.  The overall Jewish population is heavily concentrated in Dushanbe and is very low.  People who could leave with the fall of the Soviet Union left.  If not at that point, the Civil War made a good time to try to escape.  The few who are left are mainly elderly and many of them know very little about Judaism and are Jewish based on small snippets of life experience, and blood.  Dushanbe does have a very active synagogue, which we attended for Shabbat Morning Services, followed by a traditional Bukharan lunch.

Tajikistan went through a very bloody civil war in the early ‘90s.  Since it’s very difficult to ask people to describe experiences that they’d likely prefer to forget, the topic usually only came up in vague allusions.  Olga, however, talked freely of this time.  She remembers not being able to walk in the streets for days at a time.  Gun fighting would erupt at random points during the day.  People killed other people indiscriminately.  A person’s national and ethnic category were less important than simply being a person – this made you a target.

Dushanbe doesn’t have its own JDC office; its programs are funded and overseen by the Bishkek office, with Olga working alone to manage the programs within the country.  The Dushanbe program consists mainly of providing necessary services for the elderly.  Olga, a former doctor (a trend for JDC representatives in the FSU), spends most of her time arranging food packages and conducting home visits.  The Jewish community, however, consists of more than elderly Jews.  There is a vibrant, if relatively small, observant community led by a dynamic and driven man – Misha – who holds regular services.  The observant community is a mix of “Russian” and “Bukharan” Jews, but since the majority have lived in Tajikistan for most of their life, the service was in a Bukharan/Sephardic style.  Saturday, after Khojand, Meghan and I went to morning services.  There were 12 men praying, in addition to the two of us.  Along with 10 Dushanbe Jews, there were two other American guests, one man originally from Georgia (Caucasus Georgia) and the other originally from Bukhara.  Lunch followed services.  It was difficult to walk after lunch due to the immense amount of home-cooked food.

Starters
Baked eggs
Potato slices
Fresh vegetables

First Course
Baked fish, slides off the bone, more flavor than any other Central Asian fish I’ve eaten

Second Course
Bukharan Cholent

Dessert

Chai
Fruit

Drinks (throughout the meal)

Wine
Vodka

The menu doesn’t do justice to the immense amount of delicious food that was on the table.  Fortunately, after the meal, we had the chance to walk it off at an Arts Fair with products from around the country.  Tajikistan has beautiful art and handicrafts – also makes you very hungry after a few hours of shopping.  Dushanbe, as the capital of Tajikistan, has a variety of types of restaurants, including Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Georgian, and classic American steakhouse.  Tajikistan’s status as the poorest of the Central Asian countries, however, is very clearly reflected in its nice restaurant prices.  Our meal at the Steakhouse (a very tasty properly cooked medium rare New York Strip, not so good chili, and beer) was only $10.

February 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment