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.


Cheryl said...

You are one very lucky young man (well - maybe not so young anymore....)

Jennie said...

Beautifully written, Brad.

Thinking of you :)

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