Monday, June 28, 2010

PHOTO ESSAY: Eastern Kyrgyzstan

Old lady sits and waits during the early morning hours of the Karakol Animal Bazaar. People buy and sell sheep, goats, horses, and cows every Sunday.

Russian Orthodox church

Lazy boys

Hard Sell

Kids lingering outside a Dungan Mosque made without a single nail.

Finding Compassion in Kyrgyzstan

Jialoo and his wife Azhar stand in front of their home garden. As earlier participants of the Apple Project, a Mercy Corps program launched in 2005, they have improved and increased their yields.

On a cool, cloudy day in eastern Kyrgyzstan a man named Jialoo Mamatov stood tall, his outstretched arm pointed proudly towards a lush green garden. His delighted gaze needed no translation. Beyond the long rows of garlic and budding fruit trees spring runoff threaded around rolling foothills, its twisted path extending up to the Jety-Oguz Mountain Range.

Unfortunately, the serene moment between a man and his garden was in direct contrast to the crisis unfolding in Osh and Jalalabad, two cities located in southern Kyrgyzstan. The tour of Jialoo’s garden was part of a scheduled trip to visit Kompanion field offices and Mercy Corps programs near Lake Issyk-Kul however; the timing was clearly at odds with recent events.

Hundreds of miles from Jialoo’s village the fear, confusion, and senseless violence were finally subsiding. But back in Bishkek, and on the other side of the globe, Mercy Corps and Kompanion were ramping up staff and resources in preparation for a substantial humanitarian response. A flood of meetings, maps, laptops, and logistical plans descended on conference rooms across multiple time zones.

Far from the action at headquarters the view from my conference room table was slightly different. Curls of steam rose from my cup of tea as I sat at a large dinning room table and listened to Jialoo's prayer. With a commanding presence and sincere, gentle tone he spoke about peace in his country and around the world.

The recent eruption of chaos, though far from his farm house, weighed heavy on his mind. We spent an hour trading questions and sharing cultural nuances. He enjoyed telling stories about growing up in Kyrgyzstan. In the dirt driveway, surrounded by his family, we said our goodbyes with handshakes and hugs.

Lost in the shadows of this renewed violence and mayhem are the amazing citizens of Kyrgyzstan who embody compassion and generosity. Spending the afternoon with Jialoo, seeing his face creased with a wide smile, I realize his pride in Kyrgyzstan is not an anomaly. It is representative of the enduring sense of patriotism that can be found across this beautiful country.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Chaos, I mean Cup

The dark living room glowed pulsating green as the World Cup played on TV. Happily pinched on the couch between my roommates, Manu from Tajikistan and Ilhom from Kyrgyzstan, I thought for a moment we had chosen these circumstances.

Our range of nationalities could serve as material for a new line of jokes that start “so a Canadian, Tajik and Kyrgyz man walk into a bar...” however the reason that had us confined to the apartment on a Friday night was no laughing matter.

Southern Kyrgyzstan has been hit with a new round of fighting and without knowing if the violence will spread north we are under self-imposed house arrest. On Friday a burst of riots added yet another round of bloodshed to what has already been a turbulent and trying time for this country since the revolution on April 7th.

The World Cup provided only short jabs of distraction. Typically, when football matches reach halftime, coverage turns to other matches, goals, and discussion about the ensuing half, but the three of us watched as footage of burning buildings and new causality numbers filled the gap in play and never returned to cover the second half.

Ilhom's cellphone is constantly ringing, receiving updates from his friends about the violence. I feel a personal connection to this conflict because of Ilhom. Although he has been working in Bishkek for several months his family, including his wife and two beautiful daughters live in Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, a 10/12 hour drive from Bishkek, and currently the center of fighting. As of now his family is safe.

My questions about why this fighting erupted again in the south are answered with indirect frustration. On several occasions people have alluded to the possibility of young men being paid small amounts of money to essentially “raise hell”. To say who would fund such violence only expands this unsubstantiated argument. However, I have my guess as to who would have the means and desire but that's all it is, a guess.

Regardless of what sparked this renewed surge of violence there are certainly enough underlying issues at play to support this instability for weeks to come. Twenty years of tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. A weak interim government. Hesitation by nations to lend military support to quell the uprising. And few employment opportunities for the young, dejected, drunk, and rebellious.

Far from the football pitch, a world away from the world's game, a different battle is being waged in Kyrgyzstan. Their fight is against senseless violence, corruption, and ethnic fighting. Their goal is for peace not points. They seek an end to the chaos not a gold cup.

Follow up: The baker in the last post, Zahril, is Uzbek. It happened that yesterday I went to pay him a visit. I found his shop locked up like he hadn't been there in years. It was the first time I had seen it closed since arriving in Bishkek. Certainly he feared being targeted as Kyrgyz/Uzbek tensions build.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Legend of Lepeshka

I causally slow my stride and wait for Zahril’s head to rise from his dome-shaped oven which seems to be loosely fashioned after the Pantheon. These memorable seconds of my 30 minute walk to work are spent trading the “thumbs up” with this cheerful outdoor baker. Morning’s first light illuminates our brief exchange of sign language, creating a soft glow against his smiling collection of bright gold teeth.

When I pass he is often consumed in the routine of making Lepeshka. Lepeshka is a type of bread found throughout central Asia. Having spent a month in Bishkek, I have learned these plain wheels of white bread are consumed during any meal in astonishing quantities. Fresh from the oven the bread has a tasty, chewy texture. However, day-old Lepeshka could easily be used for discus practice.
Shortly after dawn Zahril’s son starts sliding circles of raw dough out a small square opening from the kitchen to the industrialized patio. The legend of Lepeshka then straps on his baker’s do-rag and sets to work. After a playful toss of the dough, he ducks into the holed inferno of hot coals, squashing the moist wads of flour against the curved walls like suction cups.

Having momentarily defied gravity the bread, now golden brown, is removed using a bowl-on-a-stick tool. It is then set on the side table, lathered twice over with a buttery paintbrush and ready to be sold for 8 som, or 10 cents.
Although we do not share a common language we managed to communicate with smiling nods and short fits of laughter during the spontaneous photo shoot. The camera inadvertently created a small scene, but the unexpected publicity appeared to go over well with Zahril. After a firm handshake goodbye he bagged a piping hot Lepeshka and refused payment. He was content trading 8 som for our customary thumbs up.

Not a bad way to start the work day.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Some fresh air

Certainly there could be no possible connection between the stunningly beautiful Tien Shan Mountains south of Bishkek and the Dordoy Bazaar located north of Bishkek, one of the largest markets in Central Asia.

The Tien Shan Mountains embody peace, untouched natural beauty, and a sense of tranquility that would make a zen master take in an extra OM just at the sight of them. Then there is the exact opposite, the Dordoy Bazaar, a crush of crowds and maddening chaos that produces sensor-overload within minutes. But a weekend with five smiling faces would show me the amazing connection between these two extreme environments.

The Dordoy bazaar is a haven for child labor. Tight family budgets often send children into dark corners of Dordoy, selling drinks or finding other work, adding what little extra money they can. These kids didn’t have the chance to experience the beauty of a mountain range that is hauntingly close to Bishkek until an American climber, Garth Willis, established the Alpine Fund.
In 2000 Garth’s commitment elevated Bishkek kids from the confines of alleyways into the alpine. The commitment continues today in large part because of the dedicated staff, volunteers, donors, interns and sponsors. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this inspiring bunch and tag along for a weekend getaway.

Although I knew the majority of the weekend would be spent hiking with kids, I still felt out of the loop Saturday morning as I sat shotgun in a jacked-up 4x4 minivan. A quick glance over my shoulder had me locking eyes with five preadolescent children. They sat quietly whispering and giggling during the drive up to the dacha, or country house.

Supplies safely tucked away in the dacha, the kids along with me and another volunteer headed for the mountains just as the sun reached its crest. Full of pent up energy, the kids ran ahead, blazing up the steep green slops without a care in the world. They collected wildflowers, they splashed around in the icy glacier streams, they rolled down the hills like human pencils, crashing into each other then bursting into laughter.
My oversized camera in hand quickly established my identity for the weekend. I was there to make each kid feel like celebrity, snapping photographs without hesitation, documenting every smile. I considered it a huge honor to be Alpine Fund’s official Paparazzi.

Our time together passed in a flash. Preparing the meals, cleaning the dacha, a handful of hikes, and capturing all the laughs on camera made short work of the weekend. Of course I remember nature’s beauty, I remember the mountains, but what sticks with me are the smiles. Whenever the kids would look at me, with or without the camera and throw me one of those giant smiles I sensed a profound connection between them and the essence of happiness.

It was a quiet ride back to Bishkek. The children made it clear they wished they could stay at the dacha longer. Goodbyes were hurried before the kids piled into a marshrutka, or local bus. I made certain to shake each of their hands, thanking them for all they had given me. When I approached the youngest boy I noticed he was crying.

Long before he created AF Garth Willis once wrote, “In every trip there is that one moment that justifies everything”. I found my moment on that smoggy, concrete street corner surrounded by an unforgiving city. Realizing the boy’s tears were an expression of every beautiful moment spent in the Tien Shan Mountains.

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