Sunday, August 29, 2010

layover in london.

A view of the Thames from Embankment Station. It was one of those days where you could feel autumn in the air.
I awoke to a bright blaze of orange light painted my cousin's living room wall. I put on my glasses, crawled out of my sleeping bag and saw the sun rising over London's skyline.

My cousin and his wife, both teachers enjoying the last days of summer break, are kindly hosting me for the week. Coming from Kyrgyzstan I have enjoyed the trusted face of a family member, laughing about days long past, and my cousin's carefree attitude.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Friends in the field

The airline representative tossed my duffel bag crammed full of funky felt slippers and Kalpaks — traditional Kyrgyz hats — onto the conveyor belt. Early for my flight, I found a seat near my departure gate with a view of the tarmac. I glanced at my watch — it was just before 8 a.m. I knew Alymbek, the security inspector for Mercy Corps/Kompanion’s office in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was greeting staff with that same giant smile he gave me every morning I passed him on my way into the office.

Every day across the globe, heartfelt goodbyes are exchanged between foreign and local humanitarian staff. Employment contracts begin and end. Grants are awarded and spent. Programs are implemented and completed. And, in this case, interns come and go. According to the statistic around the world, 95 percent of Mercy Corps team members are nationals of the countries in which they work. Belonging to the other five percent I realize friendships formed with local staff, although inherently transitory, are an invaluable reward of fieldwork.

Friends in the field are often defined by the sum of very simple moments. A genuine smile, like Alymbek’s daily greeting, can make all the difference when working in remote locations under stressful conditions. Even a spontaneous trip to the rural reaches of a country to monitor a program or survey beneficiaries can be a catalyst for making an unexpected friend. I enjoyed the name-dropping by Mercy Corps staff members who referenced their enduring friendships they have with expatriate staff, some dating back to 1994, when Mercy Corps opened its first office in Kyrgyzstan.

The plane climbed above snow-capped peaks as I watched massive mountain ranges slip beneath the cloud cover. Thoughts of friends and family had me anticipating their amusement and interest in the souvenirs and anecdotes I’ve collected from this fascinating region of Central Asia. Surely some will ask what I miss most about my time in the field. Recalling cherished moments and loud laughter traded with local staff members, I will reply without hesitation — my friends.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

bye bye Bishkek

It had the feel of my first night in Kyrgyzstan -now nearly four months ago- I was wide awake, staring at the ceiling, listening to the same faint call to prayer from a nearby mosque which complimented the pale blue pre-dawn light that seeped through the curtains. I'm down to my final days in Bishkek and sleeping just about as well as when I arrived, hyped-up on a crazy, emotional concoction of anxiety and excitement, only I can't blame it on the jet-leg this time.
Always a sucker for a metaphor, I like to think this is a photo of two brothers riding out of Bishkek, Anxiety and Excitement. Although admittedly, one is hard pressed to decide which one is Excitement.
There is a synaptic storm of anxiety swirling in my head as the end nears. A flood of thoughts about packing, logistics, final farewells, self-induced performance reviews and endless variations of these concerns prefer to be pondered before dawn. Sandwiched somewhere in between the worries are fits of excitement about what I have learned, friends I have made, and the collection of cherished memories I will take from this forgotten pocket of Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan provided a complex backdrop to this fascinating profession of humanitarian work, an invaluable experience that captured the human condition from all angles. I arrived shortly after the violent over-throw of Bakiyev's presidency, a reign of recklessness which is increasingly being labeled as one of the most corrupt Kyrgyz governments since its independence was declared after the fall of the Soviet Union. An unsettling series of house arrest weekends ensued, holed-up in the apartment due to threats of renewed violence. Then ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan broke out in June. This sparked an impromptu week-long relocation to a mountain retreat, the logic being that if the violence spread north Mercy Corps would have their foreign staff members huddled together in a safe house, expediting the evacuation process. After a few tense weeks the dust settled (more or less) and management decided it was safe to fly the interns down to Osh for a quick trip to assist with the monitoring and evaluation of Mercy Corps' recovery effort.

And now, a few weeks later, in the early morning light, in an apartment which never seems to let go of the summer heat, I'm sweating out this final post about an internship which has been eventful in every sense of the word. As for the fate of this blog, fear not my devoted reader(s) I'll still be sending notes from the field, but not before relinquishing a half-dozen timezones.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Photo Essay: Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar is a large open air market in the center of Bishkek, which is in large part focused on selling foods, fruits, veg, nuts, etc. It's size however pales in comparison to Dordoi, a massive market located on the outskirts of town which is concerned more with material goods.

Woman selling Kurut, dried balls of salty, sour milk. I am told sucking on a kurut ball while drinking beer is a tasty treat. ...have yet to try that...
Huge sacks of sunflower seeds fill one corner of the Bazaar. This country is crazy for sunflower seeds.
A table full of summer's last strawberries -- walking through this section of the bazaar is like having your nose dive nostrils first into a pool of berries.

Woman in selling ground peppers and spices.
Vendor selling dried fruits and nuts.
A man selling fish and small aquariums.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A CPRless weekend getaway

Forgotten valley that served as our campsite. The park ranger turned out to be a very loud donkey, letting us know in the morning we were late checking out.
The police officer accepted the customary 3 dollar bribe after making Dina fill out a lengthy form, a process which was sparked by a radar gun that magically said we were going 20 miles an hour over the limit.

Pulling away from the bogus speed check the conversation continued:
“so this big guy was floating face down in river” continues Dina.

“this happened last weekend down the same river?” questioned the women, with trepidation, who was joining this rather impromptu weekend excursion of rafting and camping.

I had heard this story already, last week at the metro pub, a popular expat hangout in Bishkek, and only hoped that our rafting trip down the chui river would be less eventful. As the story goes the week prior a few of my friends helped rescue the raft in front of theirs and preformed CPR on a guy who was knocked unconscious when it flipped, then dragged him and the raft up a steep embankment to the ambulance. Guy lived, barely, end of story.

After a two hour drive we found ourselves listening to a big Russian guide giving instructions (in Russian) next to the raging Chui river. Without signing a western world insurance wavier, I began fixing the Velcro strap up my plastic skull cap extra tight while flirting with images provoked by the CPR story in the car, picturing that poor bastard being given mouth-to-mouth by some stranger while wearing this ridicules multi-colored skull cap. That can't be my fate I thought.

Gripping my Soviet style metal oar with the confidence and fortitude of Meryl Streep in “The river wild” we started charging down the middle of the swollen river banks, a product of continuous spring run-off, towards class 4 rapids. Note: my previous rafting experience was throwing a bunch of rich kids overboard down the Rhone River in southern Switzerland, class ½.

The river definitely had bursts of anger, which was exciting and worth the $40, even more so because I increased my Russian vocabulary by two words, “FORWARD” and “BACKWARD” which was shouted in my ear every time the guide gave paddling instructions.

When the river stretched into longer flows of relative tranquility I was able to take in the sights. Watching countless loads of young mares packed into pickup beds pass overhead, being trucked off to one of the many large animal bazaars in Kyrgyzstan. Their huddled manes fluttering in the wind were all I could see looking up from the river valley as they zoomed past on the treacherous highway that parallels much of the river's path. Connecting the worlds on either side of the Tien Shan Mountain Range.

Deep dips, down into the belly of the rapid, then thrusting up to the other side, the crew drenched with water as we crested the mountain of white rage, only to repeat the pattern again and again down the 20km journey.

Large herds of sheep, grazing next to the river, would scamper off at the sight of our floating orange monster. Their collective movement against patches of green grass and steep red clay canyon walls was a moment befitting of any quality nature show.

The rafting ended without any serious injuries or noteworthy events. When things go right there are few exciting stories to tell, a truth that has been my guiding principle ever since I started out on this nomadic life style several years ago.

Looking down at our campsite in a Jialoo, or Kyrgyz mountain pasture

We piled back into the SUV, found a road off the main drag and proceeded to drive into a forgotten patch of Kyrgyzstan's 90% mountainous terrain. Setup camp, started a fire, roasted marinated meat on skewers, drank moderately priced vodka late into the night, got up the next morning, went for a hike and drove back to Bishkek before Sunday sundown.

A full weekend without CPR.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A visit to Lake Issyk Kul

A watermelon chills in the icy waters on a hot day.
Soon after arriving in Central Asia I realized that Kyrgyz people base their entire summer around one trip. Visiting Lake Issyk Kul.

I had the great fortune of visiting Kyrgyzstan's most popular attraction with some friends recently. Issyk Kul (113 miles long, 37 miles wide), the world's second largest mountain lake, was a favorite getaway for big shots during the days of the Soviet Union and now draws anyone and everyone to its cool blue waters. Old and new hotels line the northern shore while the south shore has remained relatively untouched by development due to its uninviting rocky beaches.

Woman selling warm mare's milk out of her car. My friend Ulan insisted that it was time I try this treasured tradition. I did. One word: sour.
For the most part, three days with my Kyrgyz friends on the shore seemed very similar to visiting any lake in the western world. But, as with everything in Kyrgyzstan, things here are just a little different. Take for example the variety of snacks and food that can be purchased from your beach towel. Kids passing all the time with a dozen smoked fish hooked on a stick all lined up for inspection by hungry customers, who I found out with my local friends love nothing more than their smoked trout, cold beer and warm sun overlooking the lake. Or homemade fruit rollups, or small bags of sunflower seeds, or meat pies, or then there's the non food items, the necklaces, the tattoo artists who paint on images that last for about a week, or the guy that walks back and forth on the beach, pitching photos next to his camel.
Kyrgyz boy "poses" for the camera. I didn't see who instructed him to make this hand gesture, but I believe, after taking the photo, it was his father sitting next to me.
 All in all it was a great cultural experience which now allows me to speak with some authority when ask if I have been swimming in Lake Issyk Kul.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mercy Corps Blog

I was feeling the heat by mid-morning in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city. I took refuge from the sun under a slice of metal roofing. Less than a minute passed before a firm grip on my forearm gently escorted me away from my prized spot of shade.

Manzura Rasulova guided me back into the sun toward what she wanted me to see. She gestured to structural damage caused by the fire which destroyed her home. Her business and home account for two of an estimated 2,500 buildings destroyed during the June 11th clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan.

By lunchtime, we had visited half a dozen families — including Manzura's — who filled out grant applications with Mercy Corps, which is the first step in obtaining funding to rebuild homes and/or businesses. I was spending the day with Mercy Corps and Kompanion staff as they continue to compile names of potential equity grant recipients. Although undertones of fear and distrust remain in many neighborhoods, those we met expressed an eagerness to rebuild their communities.

Late afternoon sunlight stretched across this once-thriving Silk Road stopover as we collected more applications. Powerful sights and sounds took hold with each damage assessment. The snap of debris underfoot, the leaden handshakes, tears absorbed by subtle dabs from a headscarf, and the lasting image of goodbye — a hand reverently placed over the heart.

At the dinner table sat an all-star collection of Mercy Corps and Kompanion staff. A small table was dominated by a platter piled high with plov, a traditional Central Asian rice dish. Armed with giant spoons, we dedicated ourselves to reaching the bottom but managed to exchange plenty of stories, ideas and concerns about our day between spoonfuls.

By nightfall, silence and a cool breeze greeted the 10:00 p.m. citywide curfew. It was the end of a full day crisscrossing a town in turmoil. Many residents were grateful to learn about Mercy Corps’ equity grants but balanced their optimism with concerns about the coming months. The slow encroachment of winter’s return only adds to the growing sense of urgency to restore livelihoods as soon as possible.

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