The final morning started out bad and got worse.
With Aizada practically on top of me, purring into my right ear, and a puppy that had sought shelter from the cold and wind by nestling up against the yurt, whimpering in my left, I had hardly slept. I tried to move Aizada, but asleep that wisp of a girl felt like she weighed three hundred pounds.
At breakfast, when we were all seated around the plastic tablecloth laid out on the floor of the yurt eating rice porridge and sipping tea, I asked Aizada if it would be all right to ask Kenje my questions – I had consulted with Aizada the day before if it would be okay to ask a few questions and if she would act as my interpreter. It seemed like a good time because, at the moment, Kenje was seated quietly by the teapot.
I asked four questions. How old were you when you got married? (17) How many children do you have? (2) Do you want to have more children? (No). And what do you want for your daughter? (Anything she wanted. If she wanted to go to University that was fine. If she wanted to stay on the jailoo that was fine too. Whatever made Nursia happy.)
When we finished, Claude said to me hostilely, “So aggressive! Why do you ask so many intimate questions?”
That coming from a woman who had been nothing but rude to me for the past two days; who treated me as an interloper who was spoiling her family’s vacation.
My cheeks burning with humiliation, I stammered out a reply, “I don’t think that the questions I asked are inappropriate, not based on the what people have asked me. And not on the information they had offered up to me.”
Claude made it sound like I had asked Kenje how often she and her husband had sex and what kind of birth control they used.
But what if she was right? What if I had been incredibly rude? Was I so caught up in my own panic about getting material to write about that I had been oblivious to any discomfort I may have caused Kenje? Should I have waited until after breakfast? I was conscious that Aizada was not my guide and that after breakfast she would be helping the Frenchies get packed up, and Kenje would have work to do. Later, when we were getting organized to leave, I pulled Aizada aside and asked her to please tell Kenje that I had intended no offense and she assured me that everything was fine. Whether it really was, I’ll never know, but Kenje did not appear to take offense. Claude took upon herself to be offended for her.
When Henri approached me, hoping to clarify what had occurred I was feeling a bit more confident. “Your questions might have been considered inappropriate,” he said.
“I consulted with Aizada before speaking to Kenje. I have only the greatest respect for the Kyrgyz people,” I explained. Why was I justifying myself to this man?
He then broached the subject of my picture taking. “Did you ask their permission to take pictures?”
He was bringing up issues that were really none of his business, but still I continued to defend myself.
“I never photograph intimate situations or photograph someone who doesn’t want to.”
I continued that it was, so far, my experience on the jailoos that the Kyrgyz loved to be photographed and that they wanted people to know about Kyrgyzstan and its people and culture. For good measure, I added, “Other than you (that moment excepted), no one in your family has made me feel comfortable, and Claude especially has been very unfriendly.”
He tried to assure me that that was not their intention and he used the language barrier as a justification. I laughed in his face. All their conversations with their guide had been in English. They had lived in the United States.
I was anxious to get away from them, but circumstances wouldn’t let me. The trail was on the
other side of the river, easily crossed on horses but not so easily by backpackers. They and their packs had to be ferried across on horseback. Zulkar had already taken Henri across when Chopo and I rode up. Chopo offered his assistance and I found myself in an awkward position. If I didn’t offer to help because of my poor equestrian skills, would it be misinterpreted as spiteful behavior? I knew I wasn’t capable of handling an additional rider, but maybe I could handle a backpack.
Aizada tossing two packs that had been tied together over the back of Sherdar like saddlebags was more than I had bargained for. Sherdar bucked and stomped and I thought, “Great! To make matters worse, I’ll dump their stuff in the river.”
I got Sherdar under control and forded the river successfully, but my hand ached from holding tightly onto the bags.
Once everybody and everything was on the other side, Chopo and I were free to get the hell out of there. We made good time and stopped for lunch in the same spot we lunched at two days prior. Chopo had brought some kymyz back with him. He opened the bottle saying, “Kymyz. Kyrgyz national drink.” He took a big swig and sighed with satisfaction.
I picked up a plum saying, “Plum. My favorite fruit,” and taking a bite, I sighed with satisfaction.
As we neared Kochkor, a man called out a greeting to Chopo. I remembered that the man had been in the same spot - squatting among the poplars in front of his house – when we were headed out and had then too called out to Chopo.
I arrived at the guesthouse hot and tired. It would be an hour before there was hot water for a shower so I decided to try to find a felt shop that I had heard about. I didn’t find it, but I did find someone to have tea with.
He called out to me as I walked down Kochkor’s main street. “ Do you speak English?” He sounded English or Australian. I was surprised when he introduced himself as Carlo from Genova.
He owned a tour company and was in Central Asia with two clients who hired him for private tours every year. He had lively pale green eyes and a shaved head and he was nice, and he actually wanted to talk to me.
We continued walking down the main street bustling with people selling fruits and vegetables. We passed taxi drivers hustling up passengers for Bishkek, 250 som, or Naryn, 150 som. The crowd was a mix of women in polyester dresses and headscarves; men in too big suit coats and kalpaks, the traditional peaked white felt hats; young men in jeans, tee shirts and baseball hats, cell phones pressed to their ears; young women in tight tee shirts embellished with rhinestones and glitter; observant Muslims, bearded and skull capped; and the occasional backpacker, bearded and grungy.
A tiny Kyrgyz man, in a too large blue suit coat, jeans hiked up as far as they could go and a
kalpak grabbed Carlo’s hand and asked where he was from. Italy. And her, indicating to me with his thumb. America. He enthusiastically shook my hand, then placing his left hand over our joined right hands, shook my hand some more. Then he shook Carlo’s hand again, and again asked him where he was from. As we took our leave from our new friend Carlo said, “I love meeting Kyrgyz people. They are so kind.” Sighing, he added, “But it can be a problem when they won’t let you go.”
We hopped over a filthy arik to a row of yurts selling fish and kymyz. The last yurt was a chaikhana (teahouse). Light streamed in through the tunduk. White lace netting was draped all around. It was like being inside a wedding cake. Our seat was a metal cot covered with a wool blanket. The surly waitress dropped an electrical coil into a glass pitcher to boil the water for our tea.
To Carlo, everything was “Fantastic!” Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz people, Genova, my plan to write a book, life! Walking back to my guesthouse, he pointed to the silver figure of a man set atop a brick base.
“Who is that?” he asked.
It was a statue of Lenin, depicted grabbing his lapel with his left hand while his right arm was outstretched, the palm of the hand open, like he was addressing an imaginary crowd.
“Fantastic! I have been looking for him all over!” he cried excitedly. “You must take my picture.”
He pulled a camera out of one of the many pockets on his cargo pants. He took out the battery pack and blew on it for half a minute. “They’re almost dead. Let’s hope this works.”
The subject posed below the great man, the photographer aimed and the photo was taken.
“Fantastic!” said Carlo.
Photos: (1) Horses, (2) Chopo checks the saddle, (3) Our Kyrgyz friend